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Pandemic stress saw increase in potentially addictive behaviours: study

A recent study with a Canadian connection has found that people gamed, overate and shopped more often — among other potentially addictive behaviours — as a result of the initial stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study by the University of Guelph, as well as the Humboldt University of Berlin's psychology institute, found instances of shopping, alcohol use, smoking, legal and illegal substance use, gambling, gaming and overeating all increased gradually for two months beginning in March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, before gradually falling by month five.

The results were all self-reported over a six-month period and involved 1,430 adults from the United States.

The researchers say the study, to their knowledge, is the first to look at multiple, potentially addictive behavioural problems simultaneously over an extended period of time.

The study was published in the Journal of Behavioural Addictions in December 2021.

"It's only natural to expect that people would experience distress as COVID cases rose and the lockdown was in place," Sunghwan Yi, a professor in the Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics at Guelph University, said in a news release.


The researchers used self-reported online questionnaires in an Amazon survey database known as MTurk.

Between March 26 and Oct. 2, 2020, they asked participants about their engagement in the eight potentially addictive behaviours listed and asked them to gauge their level of stress caused by COVID-19.

Groups of 25 participants were sampled every three days over 191 days.

Of the 1,430 people surveyed, 562 were women and 858 were men. Seven participants did not identify with any gender and three did not answer. The average age was about 37.

The researchers found the increase in addictive behaviours was connected to how intense people's distress was during COVID-19 lockdown.

This was especially the case for those engaging in legal drug use, gambling and overeating.

The most common addictive activities reported for men were gaming, while for women it was excessive shopping.

The researchers note that although shopping increased for women, this may be because women normally tend to do more household shopping. The study also didn’t distinguish between impulse or compulsive buying and purchases such as home renovations, which generally aren't considered potentially addictive.

And although the behaviours examined did decline after about five months as COVID-19 cases dropped and lockdown measures were lifted, possibly resulting in less pandemic-related stress, the researchers say these newly acquired behaviours may have lingered for some.

"If you drank daily during that period, you are probably likely to keep drinking, although maybe slightly less or less often," Yi said. "It will be hard to suddenly reduce your drinking."


Although the links weren't unexpected, Yi says people are known to experience distress when faced with an unfamiliar and threatening situation.

The researchers write that the study helps increase the understanding of prolonged distress, both related and unrelated to the pandemic.

While self-reported behaviours such as substance use or overindulging can't be considered addictions on their own, the researchers say they may serve as proxies to "truly problematic behaviour."

"When people experience distress, they are less likely to engage in constructive behaviours like building something or something job-related or reading," Yi said. "Their first response is to escape distress."

It also takes time and effort to develop ways of constructively dealing with a situation such as pandemic self-isolation, Yi says.

"Engaging in addictive behaviour is an easy way out of distress since this doesn't require a lot of preparation or effort."

He says the initial lockdown also exposed gaps in access to counselling and mental health services, with behaviours such as excessive drinking, gambling and shopping proving to be easy ways to de-stress for many.

Some, he added, are losing control over these behaviours more easily, especially without the support of friends and family, but may benefit from check-ins by volunteer groups.

"We need to pay greater attention to those people spending suddenly available time alone," Yi said.

He and his fellow co-authors are calling for better health screening, especially for people with mental health disorders who may not have access to counselling or other services. Top Stories

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