Substance Use

Grief and Addiction: Is There a Link?

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The link between grief and addiction hinges on delving into the emotional response to loss and its potential impact on substance use. Understanding how the feelings of grief and grief its-self can influence addictive behaviors is crucial, highlighting the need for comprehensive support systems to address emotional challenges and mitigate the risk factors for substance misuse.

Recognizing this nuanced relationship emphasizes the importance of a holistic approach to mental health and grief support, fostering resilience and acting as a preventive measure against the intersection of grief and addiction.

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What is Grief?

Grief is a reaction to a sudden and unexpected loss or traumatic event. Loss is an inevitable part of life. This includes the loss of a job, a loved one, a pet, and even a physical ability. People might also experience grief as a result of sexual abuse or violence. (1)

Unlike disappointment, which can sometimes be planned for, the loss comes unexpectedly, fueling shock, confusion, and sadness. These feelings can cause you to feel stuck or like you’re going in circles, creating a grief disorder.

According to the University of Texas at Austin, other grief reactions include: (2)

  • Feeling like you’re going crazy
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Feeling sadness or depression
  • The lack of feeling anything
  • Decreased energy and motivation
  • Feeling like you want to run away
  • Feeling anxious or nervous
  • Feeling agitated and angry

As people advance through the grief process, they will feel better. During this time, some people need social support or support from family members and friends. Others find relief in attending support groups or treatment centers.

An individual might indulge in stimulant or alcohol use during any stage of the grief process as a coping mechanism. However, they often discover that substance use comes with its own set of unpleasant feelings and health issues.

The 5 Stages Of Grief

  1. Denial: In the initial stage of grief, individuals often find themselves grappling with a profound sense of disbelief and denial. This emotional response serves as a protective shield, offering a buffer against the overwhelming reality of the loss. It’s common for individuals to express sentiments such as “This can’t be happening” or “It’s not real.” The shock and numbness experienced during this stage allow individuals to come to terms with the magnitude of the loss gradually. (3)
  2. Anger: As the reality of the loss sets in, the second stage of grief emerges, marked by intense feelings of anger. This emotional response serves as a natural reaction to the perceived injustice or unfairness of the situation. Anger may be directed towards oneself, others, or even the circumstances surrounding the loss. Expressions of frustration, resentment, or outright rage become common, reflecting the emotional turmoil inherent in the grieving process. (3)
  3. Bargaining: The bargaining stage unfolds as individuals attempt to negotiate with a higher power or make deals in a desperate effort to reverse or mitigate the loss. This phase is characterized by a fervent search for meaning and a sincere desire to regain control over the situation. It often involves contemplating hypothetical scenarios, such as “If only…” or “What if I had done things differently?” Bargaining becomes a way for individuals to cope with the loss, albeit in a mentally taxing manner. (3)
  4. Depression: In the fourth stage of grief, a profound sense of sadness and despair takes hold. Individuals confront the full weight of the loss, experiencing feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, and isolation. Depression during grief is a crucial aspect of the emotional journey, allowing individuals to acknowledge the depth of their emotions. Symptoms may include persistent sadness, changes in sleep patterns, and a general sense of grief-related despondency. It’s crucial to differentiate this stage from clinical depression, understanding that it is a normal part of the grieving process. (3)
  5. Acceptance: The final stage involves coming to terms with the reality of the loss and finding a way to move forward. Acceptance does not signify a complete resolution of grief but rather a capacity to integrate the loss into one’s life. It marks a shift toward creating a new sense of normalcy. Individuals in the acceptance stage demonstrate a renewed ability to engage in daily activities, establish new routines, and form connections with others. While the loss remains an indelible part of their life story, it no longer dominates their daily existence, allowing for a gradual return to a more stable emotional state. (3)

How Grieving Can Lead to Drug Use

When a person is grieving, they may feel that grief has complete control of their mind. They cannot eat, sleep, or focus on anything outside of the loss. To regain normalcy or avoid thinking of this loss, they may turn to drugs to self-medicate. This is usually due to a lack of coping skills or support.

Alcohol and drugs from the benzodiazepine and opioid families are often abused by users looking to escape pain. They may expect the substance’s effects to numb the pain. (4)

However, these substances come with uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous side effects. In addition, as a disclaimer, using drugs from these groups without a prescription could end in an overdose.

Opioids and Grief

Opioid drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone (also known as Vicodin), codeine, and morphine bind to opioid receptors in the brain that instantly change how you feel. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this process begins by hijacking the limbic system, which controls emotions; the brain stem, which controls autonomous actions; and the spinal cord, which signals pain. (5)

During this process, the brain’s reward center — also called the basal ganglia — triggers a dopamine dump, flooding the user with pleasure and euphoria.

Benzos and Grief

Benzodiazepines work differently but also affect the brain. Examples of benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed drugs like Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin. Medications from this class are used to treat anxiety, pain, and seizures. (6)

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), benzodiazepines slow the central nervous system, causing relaxation and sleepiness. Like opioids, benzodiazepines increase the firing of dopamine neurons, causing the user to relax. (7)

Alcohol Use and Grief

Some people drink after experiencing a loss, thinking it will make them feel better. Drinking during times of celebration may amplify merriment, but drinking while grieving can exaggerate grief.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways and the way the brain looks and works. This interference affects mood and behavior, making it difficult to think clearly. (8)

The National Library of Medicine linked bereavement to an increased risk of psychiatric morbidity and mortality in younger people. Substance misuse was often to blame. In this study, provided by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, younger people felt that drinking helped them open up about their grief, though it had negative effects.

One participant was quoted as saying:

“In the first month following his death, I was drinking excessively and smoking marijuana a lot.” After asking participants about the effects that drinking had on their grief, one participant stated: “then I found that alcohol made me very depressed, so I stopped drinking completely.”

Repeated alcohol use puts you at a higher risk of developing alcohol dependence.

Impact of Substance Use on Mortality

The impact of substance use on mortality is a large concern in the public health field. Substance use can have lasting and serious consequences for an individual’s overall well-being and life expectancy. The effects on mortality can be direct or indirect. (9)

Substance abuse can lead to fatal overdoses, accidents, and injuries, particularly when individuals operate machinery or vehicles while impaired. Additionally, substance use can contribute to the development of various chronic health conditions.

These can include liver disease, heart problems, and respiratory issues.  These issues can increase the risk of premature death.

Substance use often intertwines with mental health disorders, exacerbating the risk of suicide. (10) The impact of substance use extends beyond individual mortality rates; it also places a considerable burden on healthcare systems, families, and communities. Treatment facilities play a large role in helping with these addictions.

Repeat Exposure to Substances Leads to Tolerance

Grief is a normal response to intense loss, but knowing this doesn’t make it any easier. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), everyone processes grief differently. The time it takes a person to go through the grieving process varies.

Taking a pill might relieve these symptoms temporarily, and in some cases, people are prescribed medications, like benzodiazepines, to address grief. However, pills are unlikely to address the grief directly and will only provide a temporary fix.

People using illicit drugs to ease the pain might find that they don’t work the same over time. This includes narcotics and popular street drugs like cocaine, crack, or fentanyl.

According to the Surgeon General, repeat exposure to drugs or alcohol can cause lasting changes in the brain, leading to tolerance. This means using a substance will no longer bring you the burst of dopamine it did initially. You will require more to get a similar feeling but never get the same relief. (11)

Habitual Drug Use Ends In Addiction

Long after the grief has passed, you might continue craving drugs and alcohol. This is caused by training the brain to associate feeling good with substance use. This is why addiction is considered a disease of the brain.

Addiction is the most severe form of a substance use disorder and often requires assistance from outside sources for treatment.

When a person tries to stop using drugs at this point, they will experience withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, headache, stomach pain, and dizziness.

Some withdrawal symptoms go away within a few hours or a few days. However, other withdrawal symptoms are so severe that the user requires medical intervention to prevent serious complications, such as a seizure or coma.

How Does Grief Counseling Help With Addiction Recovery?

Grief counseling plays a pivotal role in addiction recovery and mental illness by addressing the intricate connection between grief and substance use. Individuals grappling with addiction often experience profound losses, whether through strained relationships, shattered dreams, or the death of a loved one.

Grief counseling delves into the underlying causes of addiction, recognizing that unresolved grief can be a powerful catalyst. By exploring the connections between loss, trauma, and substance use, individuals gain insights into the roots of their addiction. (12)

This self-awareness is fundamental to developing effective coping mechanisms and healthy ways to deal with grief, all while preventing relapse.

  1. Processing Unresolved Grief: Unresolved grief can become a formidable barrier to recovery. Grief counseling provides a safe and supportive space for individuals to express and process their emotions surrounding loss. Therapists employ various therapeutic techniques, such as talk therapy and expressive arts, to facilitate the exploration and release of pent-up grief. This process is instrumental in breaking the cycle of using substances as a means of numbing emotional pain.
  2. Developing Coping Strategies: Grief counseling equips individuals with constructive coping strategies to navigate the complexities of loss without resorting to substance use. Therapists work collaboratively with clients to develop healthy coping mechanisms, fostering resilience in the face of grief-triggered challenges. These strategies become essential tools for managing emotions, reducing the risk of relapse, and promoting sustainable recovery.
  3. Addressing Co-Occurring Disorders: Grief counseling acknowledges the often intertwined nature of grief and co-occurring mental health disorders. (13) Many individuals with addiction also grapple with conditions like depression or anxiety stemming from unresolved grief. By addressing these co-occurring disorders, grief counseling contributes to comprehensive addiction recovery, ensuring that all aspects of an individual’s well-being are considered in the treatment process.
  4. Promoting Emotional Regulation: Addiction often serves as a maladaptive coping mechanism for unprocessed grief. Grief counseling helps individuals develop healthier ways to regulate their emotions. Through the therapeutic process, individuals learn to identify, understand, and express their feelings constructively, reducing their reliance on substances as a means of emotional escape.
  5. Building a Supportive Network: Grief counseling fosters the development of a supportive network, recognizing the importance of community in the recovery journey. Group therapy sessions allow individuals to connect with others who have experienced similar losses, creating a sense of shared understanding and empathy. This supportive community is invaluable for navigating challenges and sustaining long-term recovery through follow-up procedures.

In essence, grief counseling serves as a vital component of addiction recovery and addiction treatment, addressing the intricate interplay between grief, loss, and substance use.

All is Not Lost: How to Get Help With Grief and Addiction

Grief is a difficult process to deal with, especially without support. It is important to talk to someone about your grief to get better.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, creating a routine to focus on can help, such as:

  • Eating at a certain time
  • Keeping a good sleep schedule
  • Journaling your feelings

If you’ve tried these recommendations and feel that complicated grief interferes with your everyday life, it helps to speak to a professional. Using substances will not make you feel better.

If you’re struggling with symptoms of drug addiction, like the inability to stop using drugs or drug-seeking behaviors, enroll in a substance abuse treatment program to get help. These programs are offered at an inpatient and outpatient level of care.

Are you struggling with drug addiction as a result of unresolved grief? 

Our inpatient residential centers offer science-based treatments to address mental health conditions and substance use disorders simultaneously. Our experts understand the pain and anguish you may feel and are here to help you find happiness again. Call Zinnia Health at (855) 430-9439 to get started.


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Ready to get help?
(855) 430-9439
Why call us? Why call us