Substance Use

Grief and Addiction: Is There a Link?

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Grief and Addiction

Grief can leave an individual in an emotional upheaval and may turn to drugs in order to cope. Grief is a process that involves intense emotions such as despair or anxiety after a loss. Those suffering might experience behavioral changes and difficulty eating or sleeping.  

Initially, they might feel better and think using a substance is a good treatment. However, the continual use of drugs or alcohol can lead to substance use disorders (SUD) and addiction.

Zinnia Health helps thousands of individuals each year through our evidence-based addiction recovery programs. For more information on our accredited facilities and treatment options, call us today at (855) 430-9439.    

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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.

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

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

  • 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

There are five stages of grief. They include:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

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.   

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

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 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. However, these substances come with uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous side effects. In addition, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 for developing alcohol dependency.

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.

Symptoms of grief are intense and unpleasant. Using addictive substances, like drugs or alcohol, will increase your risk of drug related complications. Contact Zinnia Health at (855) 430-9439 to learn about our mental health and addiction treatment programs to get you back on track.

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.

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, like eating at a certain time or keeping a good sleep schedule, can help. It may also help to journal your feelings.

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

The National Institute on Aging recommends speaking to a healthcare professional if you have poor energy and appetite, trouble sleeping, or loss of interest. Symptoms of complicated grief could indicate depression. Depression is a common medical condition that is worsened by substance use.

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 on 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 simultaneously address mental health conditions and substance use disorders. 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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