Social distancing, shelter in place, quarantine…chances are pretty good that words like these have never been encountered before, outside of apocalyptic movie scenarios. Now, with the new realities of coronavirus they have become normalized, suggested, or mandated. For those of us in recovery, this isolation brings with it some unique challenges that if left unaddressed, could send someone reaching for the comfort or control offered by their addiction. Now, as much as ever, is the time to return to some of the basic tools of recovery, and have a good plan in place to be prepared for the inevitable call of escape in times of uncertainty.
When it comes to recovering from pornography addiction (although I think these apply to other addictions as well), I’ve identified 4 major triggers that often trip people up, and all of them are heightened with the tightening restrictions on social distancing and sheltering in place. Assessing where each of these core, underlying emotions is impacted and creating a plan for how to navigate them in healthy ways is essential for sustaining effective recovery.
I use the acronym BALD when working with clients to talk about these common emotions that create a susceptibility to slip in recovery. Bored, Anxious, Lonely, and Depressed are emotions that are common to humanity, and how someone engages them in a time of crisis can either lead toward greater freedom, openness, and connectedness, or down the spiral of shame and self-defeat of addiction. Below are some examples of pitfalls to look out for, and a few suggestions of what you can do instead.
No sports?! Seriously? I can’t go to the movies? What am I supposed to do with my free time? In many ways, It’s not at all surprising that porn sites have indicated skyrocketing usage as the world shuts down. Boredom is one of the things I hear most often from clients about why they would turn to pornography. It’s something to do. It passes the time. It creates excitement in an otherwise dull afternoon. A plight for many addicts (and non-addicts), boredom leaves us longing for some sort of stimulation (or distraction), something interesting to do, or something worthwhile to invest our time in. Ultimately it taps into a deeper desire to live a meaningful life and exposes the discomfort of sitting alone with our own thoughts.
Try: Make a list of 25-100 things that interest you and you would like to learn more about how they work (or how to do them). When you find yourself bored, pull out the list and read an article about one of them, pick up the guitar and work toward learning a new song, or grab your scissors and prune your new bonsai tree. The more intriguing the project is to you, and the more complex, the more likely you are to find yourself lost in something that can add meaning and joy to your life. I like to keep some sort of ongoing project on hand to direct my attention to should my mind need a healthy place to go. For the past 5 years the project has been designing and building a teardrop camper in my garage, from the ground up. Keep working through your list a little at a time, and feel free to bounce around from one thing to another.
We perhaps live in one of the most uncertain times in recent history, and on a global scale. For some people, anxiety may increase as things outside our control impact the daily routine of life. Deeper fears about the impact of coronavirus also abound, as well. Will my job be at stake? When will I get a paycheck again? How long will this last? What if someone I know gets sick? As our ultimate lack of control is exposed, it makes sense that anxiety might rise, and it could be easy to turn toward something that may simulate control, or at least reduce the impact of cortisol in our bloodstream. We could easily search for anything to take our minds off of our fears and distract us from the unknown.
Try: Download (and use) a mindfulness or mediation app. Something like Calm, Headspace, or Hallow can help create some mental distance from the things that crowd our thoughts. If you can find a good (socially distant!) place to be outside, nature also has a grounding effect. By returning focus to the breath (one deep breath in through the nose, slowly release through the mouth, maybe counting to 6 or 7 each breath) you can take control of something you often never think about having any control over. Breathing is a bridge between our conscious and unconscious self, and can remind us that we do have some control, even while many things may feel out of control.
Social distancing: could there be a more isolating term? Fortunately it doesn’t refer to disengaging from all social contact (whew!), just maintaining a safe physical distance from others you may interact with in person. Isolation is always the bane of recovery’s existence. As Johann Hari has famously said: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” Such connection can be challenging when 12 step meetings are in flux, meeting up for coffee is off the table, and normal interactions with people in everyday situations have been eliminated. Even worse for those who may live alone! It is imperative to be intentional about connection with others in a time of change and a time of crisis such as this. It is not the time to try and do life alone (it never is, but especially now).
Try: Doubling your daily phone calls to your support network. If you don’t make daily phone calls, try contacting someone each day to talk about how you are feeling, navigating triggers and urges, and making space for connection. You can find 12 step meetings online at intherooms.com, check out the recovery social networking app RTribe, or join a virtual group therapy session. Don’t wait for someone to reach out to you when you are lonely. Keep making calls until you get through to someone!
This category of emotion encompasses disappointment, despair, and depression (here meaning depressed mood…if there is clinical depression, it is wise to seek treatment for that as well). As the economic impacts send stocks plummeting, it could be easy to watch retirement savings disappear and lose hope. Seeing the health care systems get taxed to the brink and the global death toll creep ever upward, it could be easy to give way to despair. Cabin fever, dreams that slip away, blocked goals, unmet expectations, and irretrievable loss all will certainly impact one’s mood and outlook on life. It is important to keep a good perspective, to be mindful of what there is to be grateful for, and to have a safe place to talk about how what is going on at a deeper emotional level (without judgment).
Try: Incorporating some intentional gratitude into your exercise routine. If you don’t exercise, what a great time to add a 20-30 minute walk to your daily schedule. Exercise can be as effective as anti-depressants in terms of elevating overall mood, and to combine it with focusing on the positive things in life for which you have to be grateful can make it even more effective. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t notice anything after the first time you try it. Keep at it, it can take a little while to notice the added benefits.
There will always be threats and challenges on the recovery journey. When a difficult time of disruption, crisis, or coronavirus poses risks to sobriety and you can effectively navigate through without turning back to your drug of choice, it builds confidence in your program. It is a rewarding thing to pass through the fire sober. Don’t get caught living life BALD—make a plan as to how to move into each of these particular challenges in the coming days, weeks, and months, and if you need help, now is the best time to ask.
If you are interested in scheduling an appointment or consultation with Tim, or joining one of his virtual sex and pornography addiction therapeutic groups, please email him or contact the Charis office. He looks forward to hearing from you and talking more about how Boredom, Anxiety, Loneliness, and Depression have played a role in your life.