Stronger in 2021

With a new year upon us, it’s a perfect time to assess your habits—both good and bad. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

This year has dealt setbacks and stress to many people.

It’s not entirely surprising that some might turn to unhealthy habits to cope, such as smoking or drinking.

But as the end of the year approaches, now is a great time to take a hard look at harmful coping mechanisms.

“I think people were feeling more relaxed during the summer because they could be outside and do things that helped them cope,” said Libby Stern, a certified tobacco treatment specialist with Spectrum Health.

“Now with the weather changing, COVID-19 cases surging and restrictions being reinstated, the anxiety of that is pushing people back into certain behaviors.”

Stern leads the Tobacco and Nicotine Treatment program, which includes Quit 101, a free, four-week tobacco and nicotine cessation class from Spectrum Health Lifestyle Medicine.

When the pandemic struck earlier this year, Stern prepared to move the class online. In May she launched the virtual class, which attracted participants from around the country for the first time.

While some participants found the change in routine gave them more flexibility and time to focus on quitting smoking, others found the stress too much, she said.

She has a message for those who might have picked up smoking in 2020 and those who gave up on efforts to quit.

“I want them to know that there’s no better time to do it than now,” Stern said.

A former smoker herself, she knows what it takes.

“It’s never easy to quit. It’s always difficult,” she said. “The longer you wait, the more difficult it’s going to be because you will be more addicted and more accustomed to having smoking as part of your routine and coping skills. Having the support of a tobacco treatment specialist and others in the class working on the same goal makes a tremendous difference.”

The Quit 101 class, offered again starting Jan. 6, uses evidence-based cessation tools and strategies that are effective for people trying to quit smoking or vaping.

“You don’t just decide to quit smoking,” Stern said. “You have to really change your behaviors. Everyone needs their own personalized quit plan. The things that worked for me are not necessarily going to work for other people.”

In addition to smoking, some people also struggle with increased reliance on alcohol as a coping mechanism, Stern said. The COVID-19 pandemic only fueled the problem.

Americans age 30 and older have been drinking more during the coronavirus pandemic compared to this time last year, according to a recent CNN article. Other research supports similar findings.

According to Cara Poland, MD, an addiction medicine specialist with Spectrum Health, the stress of the global pandemic—and being asked to distance socially—can contribute to substance use disorder, be it alcohol or other controlled substances.

It’s critically important to follow the guidelines for social distancing and wearing masks, to improve safety for everyone amid the pandemic.

But it’s also important to understand that these types of changes can add challenges for people with a substance use disorder.

“While we have recommendations for one facet of public health, it has an impact on another facet of public health,” Dr. Poland said.

Add the holidays to all this and it creates something of a perfect storm.

“We do see an uptick in alcohol, cocaine and opioid use from the week of Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day,” Dr. Poland said.

So she urges everyone to take care of each other.

“If you have a family member or loved one who is at risk of substance use, then that’s exactly the person you need to do the extra phone check-in,” Dr. Poland said.

There are many resources available in the community, including virtual visits with specialists who can help with substance use disorders.

“Just like any other lifestyle change we’re trying to make, whether it’s exercising or eating a healthier diet, making small changes do add up,” she said.

And never lose sight of hope.

“2020 has been difficult for everyone,” Dr. Poland said. “And the more we can do as a community to safely address COVID-19 and other concerns like substance use, the better community we are going to build for 2021.

“This isn’t easy,” she said. “This is hard. But we can do it together.”

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