Addictions on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic: Medical specialist

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A mental health clinic in Dubai is seeing a significant increase in requests for help for addictions during the ongoing pandemic, a medical expert said.

Dr Haseeb Rohilla, a specialist psychiatrist from the Priory Wellbeing Center, told Al Arabiya English that patients seeking help show several addictive traits.

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These include compulsive behaviors including over-dependency on the internet, particularly social media, and online shopping.

“We have noticed a significant rise in forms of eating disorders, particularly binge-eating and anorexia,” he added.

Signs and symptoms

Social restrictions put in place to curb the spread of coronavirus have prevented many people from seeking much-needed companionship from friends and family, and in many cases the ability to completely ‘switch off’, relax, de-stress and refocus, Dr Rohilla noted.

This “has raised levels of anxiety and depression due to the fact the situation is out of our control and has understandably caused immense levels of uncertainty, and fear as to what lies ahead,” he said.

“This has all had a detrimental effect on our mental wellbeing. Trying to find ways to cope with this is natural and any form of addiction is, for some, a means of doing this, and acts as a ‘coping mechanism’.”

Addictive behavior is characterized by an individual repeatedly engaging in a certain type of behavior, whether this is with a substance or an activity.

“This harmful behavior becomes a repetitive habit because it results in pleasurable or valuable outcomes for the individual and ultimately results in an emotional or physical dependence on the substance or activity,” explained Dr Rohilla.

Any form of addiction is a way of dealing with negative emotions - such as anxiety, loneliness, anger and even boredom – which may make some more vulnerable to engaging in such behaviors, he said.

Often addictive behaviors masks mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and low self-esteem, he said.

Such mental health issues have been on the rise across the GCC and wider world since the onset of the pandemic.

A recent study, showed that the number of people suffering from depression and anxiety across Saudi Arabia has soared since the COVID-19 pandemic. It attributes the mental health problems to people’s fear of the virus, and the fall-out from lockdowns, restricted movement and a lack of social interaction.

‘Saudi Arabia Mental Health Surveillance System (MHSS): mental health trends amid COVID-19 and comparison with pre-COVID-19 trends’, found that more than one in seven people are suffering with a major depressive disorder – a rise of more than 70 percent compared to the results from a 2018 study.

Combatting addictive behavior

“While the ritual of any form of addiction may provide some temporary relief, it is often quickly followed by feelings of guilt and shame and so the cycle of addiction continues,” said Dr Rohilla. “Attempting to stop can result in a range of physiological withdrawal symptoms which can be overwhelming.”

He added: “Recovery from any kind of addiction is going to be hard, but it is possible.”

“It requires a complete and proactive change in thinking and attitude which will take time and require professional support.”

Dr Rohilla explained it is crucial when someone shows signs of any addictive behavior that they seek support to alleviate symptoms, address the source of the addiction and prevent it from becoming worse.

For those who cannot afford professional help, Dr Rohilla advises seeking company, spending more time with family and friends who do not share the similar problems, and establishing a routine around a healthy lifestyle is key.

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