COVID-19 has posed a challenge to everyone, and those more physically vulnerable in our community clearly need our care and attention.
There are also people whose mental vulnerability deserves equal care.
Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and addictions are exacerbated by a pandemic crisis in multiple ways.
Collective family and community fears are (in themselves) contagious; and the constant bombardment of medical and financial bad news, can leave those with mental illnesses lost in a cascade of negative rumination and catastrophising.
The mentally ill and people with addictions commonly have compromised immune systems, and suffer stress or substance, tobacco and alcohol abuse related diseases – leaving them wide open to severe pneumonia with acute respiratory distress symptoms – and other complications from COVID-19.
Isolation, separation and loneliness – caused by working at home and social distancing – are perhaps the worst contributors to: low mood; agitation; irrational fears; moments of panic; self-disgust; resentment; anger; and even rage.
People whose ability to pause, use reason and find practical solutions can be severely compromised. They may find themselves bereft of the motivation, and ability to engage in even the simplest tasks of self-care.
Added to this, listlessness, boredom and frustration can lead to despair. Then self-harm and suicidal thoughts may arise, take hold, and even overwhelm them.
Those in recovery or active addiction may also turn to their compulsive and impulsive behaviours of choice, to sooth and find momentary respite from the moods and thoughts that have hijacked their mind. Triggers, urges and cravings may become relentless and unbearable.
The solution may begin with finding a way out of isolation.
Starting the journey out of this darkness can start with talking to people who can demonstrate unconditional positive regard, show kindness and compassion, and help reframe the situation. Such people can assist those suffering to put a name to and validate their emotions.
In short – therapy can help!
In times of COVID-19, working with a therapist via teleconsultation can be effective using ZOOM, Skype, WhatsApp video and FaceTime.
Although the calming and soothing sensation of the physical presence of a therapist is absent, for those in isolation – distraught with shame and despair – Internet enabled therapy can prove a lifeline.
Isolation can be further broken, using similar Internet methods, by attendance in recovery groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous – all of whom now hold Zoom meetings in Singapore.
These Zoom opportunities in Singapore are supplemented by Zoom, Skype and telephone conference meetings in Hong Kong and Australia (in Singapore’s time zone) and in the U.K. and the US (during our mornings and evenings).
Having broken the isolation, the second step therapists can provide is guidance and motivation towards self-care. This would include tapering or abstinence from the addictive substances or behaviour. A well thought through relapse intervention and prevention plan, specifically tailored to a person’s triggers, will also assist.
Triggers may be particular places, situations, people, objects or moods.
The acronym “HALT” is often used by those in recovery; which stands for the triggers of being: Hungry; Angry; Lonely; or Tired.
When these triggers arise, people are encouraged to
HALT their behaviour;
breathe deeply, with long outward breaths;
think through consequences;
think about alternatives;
consult with others; and
use healthy tools to self-soothe.
Daily mindfulness, meditation, exercise, sleep hygiene, healthy eating and following a medication regime are important aspects of self-care – and for some suffering mental illness – these actions – and time – may be all they need to find their footing again.
Luckily, the Internet gives a vast array of possible self-care options, including things to distract us, soothe us and improve us.
Everything is available from: calming sounds and music; guided meditations; games; home exercise, yoga and tai chi; self-exploration and improvement videos; video chats with loved ones; to healthy food delivery options. They can all be had with a few keystrokes.
Today we live at a time when suffering from mental illness and addictions is commonplace. But we also live at a time when the solutions are literally at our fingertips – if we only reach out for them.
With COVID-19 forcing many of us to practice social distancing and to work from home; isolation and the constant access to Internet devices makes staying in recovery from compulsive sexual behaviour a very tall order.
There are many reasons why COVID-19 is interrupting recovery from sex addiction. Restless, irritability, and discontent will inevitably arise for all of us, when our routines are disrupted – but there is more to it than that for people in recovery for addictions.
Some will experience acute urges and cravings to act out because:
isolating at home, away from colleagues and friends leaves a recovering person lonely, and without the support of recovering others;
if they are now living 24 hrs a day with traumatised partners and disrupted families, tensions may reach flashpoints;
some may already be very anxious and depressed, and the additional worry about health and contracting the virus may prove too much;
some may have suffered financial problems from their acting out, and may be dismayed by their financial future, given the impact of COVID-19 is having on savings, jobs and salaries;
they may now repeatedly look at electronic devices for work, COVID-19 news and distraction – and those may be the very devices that caused or exacerbated the problems in the first place;
unstructured time will inevitably lead to both the distress of ruminating about the consequences of the present, and the triggers of fantasising about past acting out.
When people are struggling with an addiction, their mind can play tricks on them. COVID-19 can present a series of excuses to put their recovery “on hold”.
One person in recovery said:
“I started to tell my wife that I was looking out for the family when I decided not to attend recovery meetings and therapy. She then asked whether there were other things I could do, that didn’t involve meeting others.
I told her, pretty emphatically: “no, recovery requires the support of others”.
Then she Googled and found recovery meetings online by Zoom, Skype, and telephone conference. I was stumped. I realised that my mind was once again leading me astray.
I checked with my therapist and found that I could do therapy by Zoom, and he also gave me lots of online recovery videos to watch, information to read, and exercises I could do.
My sponsor and I now do our recovery work using WhatsApp video.
Calling my recovery friends and supporters was what I was doing before COVID-19 anyway.
I found that some of my recovery work, like meditation, prayer and daily gratitude lists is solitary work any way, and that I now have plenty of time to do that – if I chose to.”
Many people had to finally admit that they could either work hard on their list of excuses – or they could work hard on their recovery – but not both.
One of the greatest problems that people find preventing them from finding and staying in recovery from sex addiction is shame. Online connectivity platforms like Zoom, WhatsApp and other online social platforms can help with that.
People feel safer engaging online – which is one step removed from physical interactions. They feel greater comfort being at being home, in a familiar and secure space. They can also control whether and when they are seen or heard, and they can leave a meeting at any time.
Partners and family of those in recovery may also feel more assured. Their loved ones are not outside the home visiting triggering locations. They are also demonstrating their commitment to staying the recovery course – virus or no virus.
Partners and the whole family may also have more opportunity to join in healthy recovery activities – daily meditation, exercise, healthy eating, and good sleep hygiene.
Being at home gives people in recovery a unique opportunity to initiate family activities like games, puzzles, movie watching, making meals, arts and crafts, walks and swims. In recovery, this is called: “making living amends”, to the loved ones who have been hurt.
So at this isolating and stressful time, consider individual therapy and the STAR group therapy delivered by Zoom – and remain on the recovery path.
Attending group therapy for compulsive sexual behaviours (sex addiction) is commonly very difficult.
The fear and shame associated with the compulsion, and the desire to hide and minimise the behaviour subsumes a person’s thoughts. This drowns their motivation to attend. Procrastination or an outright rejection of the benefits of therapy group becomes inevitable.
Ironically, it is the benefits of group therapy that would motivate a person to attend in the first place. But they not be willing to attend unless they get these benefits first.
A chicken and egg conundrum.
The Benefits of Group Therapy – Shame Busting
One of the main benefits is group therapy’s ability to “bust” shame and fear.The same shame and fear that prevented the person from attending.
It is in a group environment of compassion, kindness and lack of judgment, that a person can find the courage to face their reality, and gain hope and purpose in their recovery.
In group, people discover that they are not alone in their secret thoughts, urges and cravings – and that they are not uniquely “broken”. It lifts the impossibly heavy weight of secrecy, lies and half-truths, that people carry – often for years.
They also find out that others – very much like them – have found a way to start a journey to change their behaviour, beliefs and feelings.
Sexual Compulsivity is an Issue of Intimacy
At its roots, sexual compulsivity is an issue of intimate relationships. Group therapy is therefore a uniquely effective way to learn how to build healthy relationships.
Having and maintaining personal boundaries and respecting the boundaries of others, is a skill set that can best be learned, and safely experimented with, in a group. Effective communication and emotion management are also learned skills – and a group of peers is the best place to practice them.
Simply by interacting with someone struggling in similar ways, learning from them – and, in turn, helping them – enables recovery to bloom.
Group Therapy and Self Knowledge
One aspect of sexual compulsive behaviour is the struggle with self-knowledge.
A person struggling with compulsivity may common to ask: what motivates my behaviour; why this particular behaviour; why is volition and control so hard; why can’t I learn from my experience; how did I get my calculation of the risks so wrong?
In group therapy, we also ask: what needs is this behaviour really serving; is it really satisfying my longer-term needs; what is the price I am “paying” for dealing with my needs in this way; are there other ways to meet those needs at the “right price”; and what else can I do to meet my needs?
The “Mirror” of the Group members
By exploring these questions together in a safe space, a group can feedback their observations of each other’s journeys – and pool their collective wisdom.
Having a “mirror” of four to six people, reflecting back their experiences of who a person is, enables that person to truly see themselves as they are – perhaps for the first time.
Group Therapy – the Safe Space Rules
To create a safe space, the group therapy the rules are made clear.
Confidentiality is paramount. Further, members are encouraged to talk about themselves and their perspectives, and not assume or impose things on others.
Advice is offered only if expressly requested. Comments are positive and constructive; and a person’s strengths and skills are celebrated.
The Outcomes of Group Therapy
With the dark pall of shame lifted – what other outcomes can be expected from group therapy?
The benefits are many. Self-awareness, self-esteem, honesty, skilful management of relationships, emotions and communications – and greater motivation to stay the recovery course.
Ultimately, not only does behaviour change, but so do perspectives and desires.
Needs are better understood and met. Purpose and meaning in life return – and having a full life becomes a probability –notjust something other lucky people have.
If you’re interested to start your CSBD group therapy journey, with a safe, non-judgmental and connected space for peer support and learning, you may want to consider writing in to [email protected] to be a part of our Sex Therapy And Recovery (S.T.A.R.) program facilitated by Andrew da Roza.
Loved ones struggle to believe that sex can be a real addiction. Isn’t it simply bad behavior and selfishness? Isn’t it just a lack of self-control? Surely serial infidelity is a moral failing and should be punished? Those suffering from compulsive sexual behavior are also confused. It’s not like drugs or alcohol – which are not things that you need.Sex is like food – we all want and need it.
Sufferers are often exasperated.
“I love my wife and my family. They are the most important part of my life. I can’t live without them. But the thought of losing them just doesn’t seem to stop me. I can’t figure out why. It’s so crazy!”
Compulsions are defined in many ways – but there is a common thread. When a person is bonded to compulsive behavior: their life is unmanageable, and they cannot stop. What does that look like for sexual compulsion?
Here is a checklist.
Is the person about to lose or have they already lost their job? Their marriage? Their children? Their health (e.g. an STD)? Their finances?
And are they still acting out anyway?
Are they isolated from their friends?
Do they want to act out rather than spend time with their spouse or children?
Do they stop hobbies and sports?
Do they lie? Cheat? Deny? Justify? Rationalize and minimize – even about the most trivial things?
Do they spend most of their time obsessing about acting out?
When they are not acting out: are they anxious? Fearful? Jumpy? Depressed? Sleepless? Restless? Angry and snappy? Distracted and distant? Aloof and tearful?
Do they appear to drink more? Smoke more? Eat more junk food? Or lose interest in eating?
Do they go back to using sex to deal with all these things?
If the answer to more than one question is “yes” – there may be a problem.
Sex addiction is as real as the suffering it causes. But there is good news! It is manageable and it is treatable. Professionals and self-groups can help. If you are suffering or know others to be suffering, there is hope. At Promises Healthcare, we are committed to helping you through your journey to recovery. Discover a new life, away from addiction and find renewed hope. Please contact our clinic for inquiries and consultations.