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The Link Between Grief and Addiction

Written on June 24, 2021
The Link Between Grief and Addiction

Addiction to drugs or alcohol are most often a maladaptive coping strategy for a deeper underlying issue. The issues that can lead to addiction may include trauma, depression, anxiety, and grief, among others. Grief, or the emotional state that accompanies loss, can often be overwhelming, with no set timeline for healing. We grieve innumerable losses in our lives: deceased loved ones, lost relationships, unexpected life changes, and even the loss of parts of ourselves, from time to time. So many of these come when addiction takes hold of our lives. While grief is natural, healthy, and essential in processing these losses, when it becomes overwhelming, it is not uncommon for people to cope with it in whatever way they are able. Because alcohol and drug abuse temporarily allows people to “numb out” of their experience, substance addiction among those grieving is unfortunately quite common.

Studies have shown that bereavement may increase the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder, such alcohol addiction. One study found that men who had been grieving for two or more years were twice as likely to develop alcohol use disorder as men who were not experiencing grief. When we better understand the link between addiction and grief, we are more likely to seek help in building healthier coping strategies to work through the pain, as well as recognize addiction warning signs if they arise.

Healthy Ways of Grieving

In order to process grief in a healthy way, it is essential to let oneself feel their experiences without judgement, just as they are. Those who grieve are likely to feel a rollercoaster of emotions, ranging from anger to denial, loneliness to sadness, joyful nostalgia to regret. There is no wrong thing to feel, and none of these feelings are permanent. Grief is a fluid and ever-changing process. The more we push away these feelings and experiences, they more intense they often become, and the more desperate we become to continue our battle to stave them off. When we are unable to be with our emotions as they are, addiction becomes a maladaptive way of pushing them away in desperation.

While this concept of “letting yourself grieve” may be simple in theory, it can be easier said than done, especially when drugs or alcohol are options to temporarily avoid the pain of loss. For this reason, it is crucial to seek professional therapy if you are having trouble coping with grief in a healthy way on your own. A grief counselor is trained in helping to process the loss in such a way as to keep you from becoming overwhelmed and therefore at higher risk for addiction or other mental health issues.

Treating Grief and Addiction Co-currently

Whether grief, trauma, or a mental or physical health issue, there is always a root cause of addiction. Addiction is a maladaptive coping strategy for something else that has become unbearable. Holistic addiction treatment therefore does not simply address the addiction, but works on identifying and healing its root cause. When you attend a holistic addiction treatment program like those at Flatirons Recovery, you will be able to not only address your substance use, but your grief as well. We use a wide array of therapies to help process, heal, and learn to thrive amidst the struggle of loss, such as EMDR for trauma, DBT for distress tolerance, ACT and other mindfulness practices, and experiential therapies such as equine therapy, art therapy, nature/adventure therapy, and yoga, among others.