Movies like Contagion and Pandemic are thrillers for a reason. Pandemics play into a lot of our fears—an unseen but potentially fatal threat that spreads beyond our control. Different combinations of those scenarios have been imagined in stories for hundreds of years. It’s why in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people are dreaming about monsters and zombies.
The tagline for the movie contagion is “nothing spreads like fear.” Although the movie came out in 2011, that’s a pretty accurate assessment of what is happening right now. If you have a phone, TV, computer, or any other way of accessing media, it’s nearly impossible to avoid scary headlines. Full transparency, I just looked at my News App headlines for some examples—but I had to stop because reading them was too overwhelming.
I’ve seen a lot of research about how things like stress or depression interact with addiction, but not as much about fear. Still, much like fear often lurks underneath things, it seems to be an undercurrent of addiction. According to an article in the journal Learning & Memory, the prelimbic cortex is involved in both drug-seeking behavior and expression of fear. This would suggest that the parts within us that drive fear also drive substance use.
It makes sense. Much like people may use substances to numb pain, grief, or hopelessness, they might use them to blunt fear. Fear can be overwhelming, and even—like in the case of panic attacks—seem to take over your system. It can cause a sort of one-track mind, making you want to do just about anything to escape the feeling. Many people who experience regular panic attacks become afraid of future panic. This fear of fear is not uncommon, and would lend credence to Contagion’s tagline. Fear spreads between people, and it spreads within a single person.
Addiction can have very similar qualities to fear. The one-track mind, the strong desire to escape, the building on itself; the more you use a substance, the more you crave it.
Fear and anxiety are closely related. The statistics on anxiety and substance use are telling. People with anxiety are three times more likely to have an Alcohol Use Disorder. People with mood or anxiety disorders are also three times more likely to abuse opioids. These and other addictive substances only end up exacerbating the anxiety.
When you’re in a pandemic, the fear is ongoing. There’s no chance to step back from it. Fortunately, there are techniques to help cope with fear if it becomes overwhelming. Different things work for each person, but for me, meditation is helpful. It helps slow your breathing, which sends signals to your body that there is no immediate threat. In March, we shared a list of free or affordable guided meditation resources.
For me, exercising also helps a lot. Movement is a way to use some of the anxious energy in a constructive way. Yoga is good too—you have to shift your focus to what your body is doing. In general, trying to find healthy and consuming distraction can take you out of the fear. Just as fear can be all-encompassing, so can your way out of it.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder during this frightening time, there is hope. Amatus Recovery Centers is open and here for you, with hospital-grade sanitization and telehealth options to make sure there is a place you feel safe: in treatment. At our facilities across the country, we will give you the tools to thrive in long-term recovery. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.