How Grief and Substance Abuse Are Connected

Last Updated on August 24, 2021

Some people first begin misusing alcohol or drugs after a loss while others suffer many losses throughout their addiction. Although the effects of drugs and alcohol can numb the pain of grief, ultimately, it goes unresolved, which can cause more issues.

As the side effects of the unresolved grief and substance abuse worsen, the issues are compounded, creating significant psychological, spiritual, and physical turmoil. Without treatment and support, it is challenging to work through these complex issues and find hope.

If you or a loved one feels stuck in a cycle of grief and substance abuse, there is a way out. Learning more about how substance abuse and grief relate to each other may help you understand why professional treatment is often necessary to heal.

Related post: PTSD and Addiction: Healing the Wounds

What Are the Stages of Grief?

In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross introduced a system for understanding the process of dying and grief. In it, she outlines the five stages of grief, which include:1

  • Denial: Being unable to accept the loss of a loved one (or some other type of loss) is very natural. Our minds struggle to deal with the intense emotional turmoil so it’s just easier to deny that it’s happening.
  • Anger: When you’re dealing with extreme grief, you might feel irrationally angry due to the hurtful situation. As a result, you might blame yourself or other people for it.
  • Bargaining: In this phase of grief, you might try to make yourself believe you can avoid the suffering through a type of negotiation. Maybe you try to bargain with God or cycle through endless “what if” thoughts because you’re overwhelmed with the idea of trying to get your life back to the way it used to be.
  • Depression: In this stage of grief, reality finally sets in and you might realize that there’s nothing you can do to change whatever situation you’re facing. As you fully experience the pain of the loss, you might feel depressed and deeply saddened.
  • Acceptance: The final stage of grief is acceptance, which involves accepting the reality of the situation. At this point, you no longer try to avoid or fight the truth. You accept life how it is and begin to adjust to it.

Not everyone who experiences grief goes through each stage. Every situation and person is different. Some people may skip over specific steps entirely, while others may take years to get through just the first two. Regardless, if you suffer from profound grief for more than six months or have started using drugs or alcohol to cope with grief, you should seek professional help right away.

What Are Common Symptoms of Grief?

Everyone deals with grief differently but if you believe a loved one is struggling, they may be suffering from symptoms like:2

  • Extreme sadness/depression
  • Anger
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Isolating from family and friends
  • Increased irritability
  • Numbness 
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Digestive problems
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches

Unresolved grief and depression can make a person more vulnerable to substance use disorders. If someone cannot work through depression and sadness, they may try to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. However, these addictive substances often intensify negative emotions, making it more challenging to process grief healthily.3

In addition, substance abuse affects a person’s ability to maintain healthy relationships, employment, and other essential aspects of a healthy life. By producing adverse side effects and health problems, addiction compounds the difficulties a person may be facing and both issues fuel psychological and physical problems.

Research supports this connection between grief and addiction, with several different studies confirming the relationship between grief and hazardous alcohol consumption.4 Additionally, studies have also shown that people who suffer from a severe and prolonged form of grief, called complicated grief, are particularly vulnerable to substance use disorders.5

If someone is dealing with addiction and grief, it’s crucial to address both issues right away. The longer a person deals with these issues the more difficult they will be to overcome.

How Does Grief Lead to Addiction?

In certain instances, grief can lead to substance abuse and addiction. Some of the most common ways this happens are:

  • A person’s grief is unresolved: Unresolved grief can lead to complex and negative feelings that are uncomfortable. A person may attempt to numb them with alcohol or drugs. Although this might work for a little while, the drugs and alcohol will only worsen those feelings, and the person may become addicted.
  • A person’s substance abuse intensifies negative feelings associated with grief: Drugs and alcohol can produce unpleasant and harmful side effects, including mood swings, depression, anxiety, guilt, and shame. Not to mention, chronic substance abuse can also cause physical health problems, contributing to negative feelings.
  • A person doesn’t know how to cope with grief: When someone doesn’t know how to cope with grief in healthy ways, they may rely on drugs or alcohol instead. This type of consistent behavior can lead to a substance use disorder.

How to Deal With Grief in Recovery

If you’re recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, grief can also increase your risk for relapse. Therefore, if you’re struggling to cope with a loss in recovery, you should seek help and support. You can also take the following intentional steps to safeguard your sobriety during this challenging time. 

  • Ask for help. If you’re having a hard time dealing with a loss, it’s a good idea to seek out support by asking for help. Sometimes, it’s difficult for friends and loved ones to see that you’re struggling. So don’t wait for the help to come to you. Take the first step and reach out to a trusted counselor, sponsor, friend, or family member.
  • Continue your treatment or aftercare. When you’re dealing with heartbreaking loss, it can sometimes feel impossible to keep putting one foot in front of the other day after day. However, it’s more important than ever in times like these to continue attending your treatment sessions, going to therapy, and maintaining your regular recovery meeting attendance.
  • Permit yourself to grieve. It’s okay to feel sad, depressed, angry, or exhausted due to your grief. In different phases of your grief, you’ll likely experience a wide variety of emotions, but what’s most important is allowing yourself to feel however you feel. 
  • Spend time with supportive family and friends. It’s important to remember that you’re not in this alone. Although you may feel lonely in your grief, you should lean on supportive family members and friends. They may provide comfort, encouragement, and hope when you need it most.
  • Seek professional treatment. Although it’s easy to justify substance abuse when you’re struggling, don’t fall into that trap. Instead, if you’re struggling, ask for help. Whether you need to meet with your sponsor more often, see your therapist more frequently, or enroll in an aftercare program, seeking out professional care will help you prevent relapse and sustain your sobriety, even during difficult times of grief.

Related post: Double Down: Dual Diagnosis of Depression and Addiction

Treatment Options for People Struggling With Grief and Addiction

Loss is a normal part of life, but that doesn’t make it easier to carry the burden. If you’ve developed an addiction to drugs or alcohol due to unresolved grief, it’s time to get help. Participating in therapeutic interventions during drug rehab can help you deal with your addiction and process your grief. That way, you can begin healing and learning healthier ways of coping. 

Many people who suffer from addiction also carry burdens like extreme grief and loss. However, with the proper treatment and support, you can recover. Please call (888) 427-4932 or contact Nova Recovery Center online to learn more about our drug and alcohol rehab programs.



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Nova Recovery Center is dedicated to helping you or your loved one get help. Please call or fill out this form for a confidential consultation. One of our understanding, dedicated advisors will contact you about your options. Begin healing today.

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