May 4, 2020

How to keep habits in check during COVID-19 crisis

UCalgary's harm reduction support adviser Yasmeen Nosshi on substance use as we navigate this unfamiliar path

What happens when our boundaries between work and leisure, weekday and weekend start to blur? When increased anxiety and loneliness become the norm, and stockpiling is second nature? According to Yasmeen Nosshi, UCalgary’s harm reduction support adviser, the COVID-19 crisis is a perfect storm for people who are at risk of alcohol and drug misuse.

“I’ve spoken with a few students who have shared that they’re drinking or smoking cannabis more then they normally would. Instead of smoking pot on the weekend, it’s becoming a daily occurrence,” she says. “A student also shared that she is drinking a glass or two of wine a night, where pre-COVID it was mainly on the weekends. When I ask why they think there is an increase, the response I get is because they are bored, or have lost track of how much they’ve consumed.”

Nosshi, who has a rich background in social work and counselling, started in her role at UCalgary in January, and continues to offer remote support to students during this difficult time. For her, education and information are the most important aspects of harm reduction, especially right now.

“Promoting abstinence simply doesn’t work for everyone. We need to make sure there’s education and information out there that helps us use substances in a safe way. Harm reduction shifts the stigma of substance use from a moral issue, into the context of health and welfare.”

Emerging trends in substance use

Between March 30 and April 2, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction surveyed 1,036 Canadians and identified several determinants that are responsible for the increase in drinking, including: lack of a regular schedule (51 per cent), boredom (49 per cent), stress (44 per cent) and loneliness (19 per cent) as the top four reasons.

“Usually, there is a defined line between work and leisure, typically we will drink after work for happy hour, or during the weekends with friends, but that boundary has been blurred with COVID-19, so it has become difficult for people to measure when work ends, and leisure begins, when all of those activities are in one place, the home,” says Nosshi.

How can we keep ourselves in check?

Nosshi outlines some helpful tips for safer substance use:

  • Understand the reasons why you’re using substances. If it’s to fill the time or boredom during isolation, maybe find something else to replace that, like going for a run, calling a friend or connecting with a new online community.
  • Avoid stockpiling alcohol, cannabis, and other substances.
  • If you’re reducing, make a goal. Think about how much you drink now and where you want to be. Keep this goal realistic for you.
  • Decide how much you think you will need to stay comfortable for the day and set that amount aside.
  • Keep a schedule and track your drinks. Pour one drink at a time into a cup, set aside beer can tabs, mark your bottles, or make a tally of how many drinks you’ve had. Slow down if you find you’re getting intoxicated quickly or drinking more than usual.
  • Dilute your drinks with water or juice or have "drink spacers" by alternating with water.
  • Consider switching to drinks with less alcohol per volume. Drinking beer instead of wine, or wine instead of hard liquor, can help you to pace yourself more easily.
  • Don’t share drink containers, glasses, drugs, and drug equipment, as COVID-19 can be transferred this way, and make sure you are washing your hands regularly before and after use.

If you’re worried about your drinking or substance use getting out of hand, there are tools available to help keep track, so you can make the decision to cut down if you notice your intake increasing.

How can we support others?

Friends and loved ones who have a history of substance abuse can be particularly vulnerable right now. If you’re concerned, Nosshi stresses the importance of checking in with people on scheduled Zoom/Skype/phone dates. If you have a loved one struggling with addition, online Al-Anon meetings offer much-needed support and advice.

Harm reduction support continues to be available to all UCalgary students, faculty and staff as we move through this difficult time. Learn more about safer substance use at UCalgary.  

Students in need of assistance can connect with Yasmeen Nosshi over email.

Faculty and staff in need of assistance can email Amy Barnett, consultant with Staff Wellness

You can find additional mental health supports related to COVID-19 here.