Bad habits and the pandemic

Bad habits and the pandemic

January 24, 2021 0 By Rick

Are you binging on junk food, booze, weed, TV series, porn or chocolate now even though you know they are bad for you? Why do bad habits continue to attract us even though we know they harm us – especially now during the pandemic? Boredom could be one of the reasons, of course. My vices are certainly more appealing right now. Whether it involves food, alcohol, tobacco or other substances, it seems more difficult to say “no right now. Life under lockdown and all the strain and constraints we face make it difficult to keep our desires in check. Instead, we seem to plunge headfirst into pleasure-seeking, according to Dr. Robert Lustig, Professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco and author of “Metabolical,” Dr. Lustig provides an in-depth look at why this is happening.

Hedonic rewards
Chronic stress floods our brains with the stress hormone cortisol on a long-term basis, which impacts the prefrontal cortex. And when that happens, the reward center of the brain triggers the pursuit of vices. “Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter. It’s held in check by the prefrontal cortex. When that inhibition is released, the reward center looks for hedonic stimuli,” according to Dr. Lustig. “Those can be chemical — cocaine, heroin, nicotine, alcohol, sugar — or behavioral — shopping, gambling, internet gaming, social media, pornography. So, why do we seek comfort in our vices even when they know the feeling won’t last?

Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos and host of “The Happiness Lab” podcast maintains there’s a disconnect between what we want and what we like. In other words, “Wanting is a motivational process. Liking is how you’re going to feel when you get it.” We see this disconnect most in the area of addictive drugs. When you crave or want something, you’ll do just about anything to get it. Yet when you get it, you don’t like it as much because you’re already addicted to it. On the other hand, we don’t seem to want things that will work, such as being nice to others, practicing gratitude or experiencing social connection because they require time and hard work.

Alcohol, tobacco and weed
If you’ve found yourself having a few more glasses (I’m being kind here) of alcohol than normally during the pandemic, you’re not alone. Alcohol has been highly wanted while the virus rages, especially by women, who it turns out are more susceptible to stress drinking while in quarantine. According to one report, women experienced decreased job security and increased social isolation during the pandemic – factors we know fuel alcohol consumption. In the US, online alcohol sales have increased by more than 500 percent over the previous year. Smoking has also made a comeback. Although this may seem counterintuitive, stimulus payments provided additional income for Americans.

Chill at home
Rather than spend money on dining out and other social activities, many chose to stay at home and smoke. And when it comes to weed, well we seem to be toking up more than ever before. “COVID-19 anxiety has brought about unprecedented demand for medical and recreational marijuana,” says Christina Visco, CEO of a chain of cannabis dispensaries in the Philadelphia suburbs. “I’ve never had so many requests from people who want to get their cards. It’s mainstream America — doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers. Just regular people that may not have considered it before that are anxious. … People have a lot of stress, and they’re looking for stress relievers.”

It’s all about me
Pandemic-fueled impulse shopping is another result of our brain’s quest for gratification, especially when it comes to self-care. People will spend more money on gifts for themselves during the 2020 holiday season than for any others, according to projections of consumer spending from RetailMeNot. But we could be in for a huge surprise. “Buying new material possessions just simply doesn’t make us as happy as we think. In fact, we’d be better off spending money on other people. Doing nice things for others seems to be actually a thing that makes us happy over time,” Laurie Santos said. Will our pandemic-acquired vices still exist once COVID-19 is brought under control? 

Optimistic or pessimistic?
“Whether bad habits lead us down a road to ruin or we can lead fulfilling lives despite them during and after COVID-19 will depend in part on individual responses to the pandemic,” says Martin E.P. Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. If you know what brings you joy and you can place things in perspective, you’re likely to cope well. If you’re optimistic, you’re more likely to survive and thrive in this COVID-19 morass. But if you’re pessimistic and you believe nothing that you do matters, you’re not going to come out of this very well. But all is not doom and gloom. With vaccines arriving now, we should start moving away from instant-gratification like impulse spending. We will begin to appreciate the new positive habits and routines we’ve created and the ability to socially interact with others once the lockdown is over. Have faith – this too will pass!