As stated by Wendy Wood, a research psychologist at the University of Southern California, and reported by the Washington Post, we carry two sets of habits with us as we take one step closer to resuming our pre-pandemic lives. They consist of those that existed before the pandemic and those that were established during. The question is which behaviors will prevail: the good ones or the bad ones? “And we’ll have to choose which to repeat,” says Wood, who is also the author of the book, “Good Habits, Bad Habits.” At present, it seems to be a toss-up.
“Sometimes, it can feel like a battle when you’re trying to change habits, especially when many people have been isolated (during the pandemic),” therapist and mental health podcast host Celeste Viciere adds. While bad habits have crept in during the pandemic, some existing good habits have intensified.
Smoking cigarettes is a prime example. In recent years, we have seen significant declines in smoking. According to healthypeople.gov, the cigarette smoking rate among adults aged 18 years and over decreased by 31.6% between 2008 and 2017. For the first time, the observed rate had fallen below 15.0%, which puts the targeted rate of 12.0% seemingly in sight.
Then, along comes the pandemic. Writing for Forbes, licensed and board-certified mental health counselor Stephanie Sarkis notes that during a time of great crisis “people are more likely to lean on their tried-and-true coping mechanisms, as unhealthy as those behaviors may be.” So, it is not surprising that cigarette sales have increased during the pandemic. Sarkis attributes this to having to cope with a combination of an already existing addiction, quarantine, boredom, anxiety and depression.
“While smoking cessation programs were strongly encouraged by medical professionals during the pandemic, it appears that there was actually an increase in smoking. Out of current smokers, 25% reported smoking more than before,” says Sarkis.
According to Dr. Nancy Rigotti, head of the Massachusetts General Doctor’s Smoking Diagnostic and Training Unit in Boston and lead researcher of a current report on smoking trends, the coronavirus epidemic has impacted American smokers in several ways. As reported in washingtonsources.org: “Whereas many people increased their smoking to deal with the situation many stopped to lower their chance of contracting COVID-19.”
Some who smoked more were likely to be seeking stress relief. As a new Cleveland Clinic report points out, short-term relief from nicotine brings with it long-term problems. And, as for using cigarettes as a means of pain relief, according to pain management specialist Dr. Crawford Barnett: “Over time, smoking may actually worsen your pain.”
“Almost everyone knows smoking can cause cancer, lung disease and cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Barnett. “But not everyone realizes that smoking can make your pain worse.”
The Cleveland Clinic reports: “Smokers are nearly three times as likely to get lower back pain. Smoking may aggravate abdominal pain and joint pain, as well. In fact, smoking may increase pain sensitivity in general.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that approximately 18% of people in the United States are smokers, yet smokers make up more than 50% of patients who seek pain treatment.
The report goes on to say that “tobacco impairs the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to your bones and tissues…can cause degeneration, particularly in discs of the spine, which already have more limited blood flow. The result can be lower back pain and sometimes osteoporosis.”
“You may look to cigarettes for help coping with pain, anxiety or stress, but there are healthier ways to do that,” says Barnett.
As noted recently on NPR’s All Things Considered: “According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in February, consumption of alcohol was already increasing in the U.S. before 2020, but it went up even more over the past year as nearly a quarter of Americans reported drinking more to cope with their pandemic stress.”
ANI News, published a report at the same time in the journal “Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research,” which notes that alcohol consumption was reduced among young adults during the initial phase of COVID.
In a sample of nearly 500 young adults ranging in age from 18 to 25, researchers saw a reduction in problematic drinking and alcohol consequences for both men and women,” says ANI. COVID restrictions on socialization are attributed to playing a major role in the reduction of risky alcohol use in this age group. It was also found that the shutdown of bars and cafes decreased the incidence of binge drinking.
“The study participants were young people, who typically drink in social settings. If you take away bars, restaurants, and group events, like parties, it’s not surprising that binge drinking in this group goes down too,” says Meenu Minhas, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research.
“We saw high levels of pandemic-related stress, irritability, sadness, which unfortunately were felt more strongly by females,” Minhas added.
“Although certain public health measures were important in controlling the spread of the virus, the benefits of social support and interaction, which often act as buffers against the effects of stress, have also been reduced due to the pandemic,” says James MacKillop, a senior author of the study.
With summer upon us and pandemic restrictions rolling back, many Americans will see it as a time to party. As pointed out by NPR: “For too many Americans, the party had already started.”