Living through a pandemic is stressful. There are several reasons to feel anxious and those with substance dependencies are more likely to lean heavily onto their addictions

We spoke to Durban based SADAG (South African Depression and Anxiety Group) Psychiatrist, Dr Hemant Nowbath, about the effects of the lockdown on people with alcohol and cigarette dependencies.

Related:Brad Pitt gets candid about his alcohol addiction

Are you addicted?

Alcohol and cigarettes are socially acceptable under normal circumstances. Many South African’s are social drinkers and habitual smokers however, not having access to alcohol and cigarettes emboldens the line between habit and addiction. This is because habitual consumers and people who are dependent on a substance react differently when it is suddenly unavailable.

“The sudden decision to suspend the sale and distribution of alcohol was well-intentioned. It was done to reduce the flow of traffic through hospitals and preserve sorely needed beds. The decision will have repercussions on people with Alcohol Use Disorders,” says Dr Nowbath.

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“These people may have significant withdrawal symptoms. An alcohol withdrawal delirium is marked by agitation, confusion, seizures and hallucinations. This is a medical emergency and would require management in a hospital setting if severe,” he explains. 

Dr Nowbath says although social drinkers may be upset and irritated by the government’s decision to outlaw the sale of alcohol, they should be able to cope without alcohol. 

“The ban could certainly have been better structured – perhaps by allowing people to purchase limited quantities of alcohol and by restricting further the times during which alcohol is sold,” he says.

Related: What does the alcohol ban ‘with immediate effect’ mean?

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What happens when you quit ‘cold-turkey?’

Although alcohol and cigarettes are not viewed under the same light like most other addictive substances, the results of quitting cold-turkey are often the same. When coupled with anxiety, depression or other mental illnesses a forced and abrupt detox can have devastating effects.  

“The mentally ill patient who has a comorbid substance use disorder runs the risk of a relapse if forced to go cold turkey. This is especially true of those who are nicotine dependent. Often cigarettes are the lesser of the evils – they have replaced the use of illicit drugs like cannabis, cocaine and heroin. Hence the danger is that the person who has recovered may well revert to his/her primary substance of abuse,” says Dr Nowbath.

Related: Smoking ban: Top scientist says “there isn’t much merit in it”

How to cope with withdrawal

Withdrawal is a term used to describe the physical and psychological effects of being cut off from a substance to which you had become dependent. 

While withdrawal is not officially considered one of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, many South Africans are experiencing withdrawal at different levels.

While some can cope with meditating, reading, learning new skills and other non-medical coping mechanisms, other people (with more severe dependencies) experience severe withdrawal. 

“If the withdrawal is severe people should seek medical assistance. Psychological support is also available. In addition, there are many online resources that people may access to assist them to cope,” says Dr Nowbath. 

For more information or assistance visit sadag.org

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.