3 Ways Grief Can Fuel Addictive Behavior

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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Grief can often be overwhelming. It may last a few days, weeks, months, and for some years. It is a natural response to the loss of a loved one, a relationship, or another meaningful situation in one’s life. Grief is emotional, and so it can cause other emotional responses such as anxiety, depression, frustration, or anger. It is human nature to want to avoid this type of deep emotional pain. People tend to deal with trauma and grief differently. There are healthy responses to these emotions, but sometimes people are unable to express their true thoughts and feelings. Too many people turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope. There are many ways that grief can lead to addiction.

3 Common Ways Grief Leads to Addiction

  1. Lack of Coping Skills

Many people go through life without having healthy copy mechanisms. The most successful, intelligent individuals may not have the emotional tools needed to deal with the crushing pain of loss. Sometimes, a person has great coping skills, but when tragedy strikes, they are unable to use them. In our society, alcohol is a popular and socially acceptable coping mechanism. The advertising industry reminds us to relax with a drink or enjoy a glass of wine at the end of a rough day. Suggestions like these encourage the use of alcohol and drugs to cope with grief. But this can lead to a life of addiction.

  1. Using Drugs or Alcohol to Cope

Using drugs and alcohol may give you relief in the moment, but they don’t take the pain away. Instead, they make you numb. Drinking is used to forget, to be “out of our mind” for the moment. It does work for a short time, but it’s not worth it. Using drugs and alcohol has consequences. Alcohol is a depressant, so a person can feel worse after using it. It often creates more negative feelings such as depression, stress, shame, anxiety, and health issues. When alcohol and drugs are used to escape grief, physical and psychological addiction may develop.

  1. Using a Substance to Replace a Person or Relationship

When we lose a close relationship or a person close to us dies, it’s instinctual to try to replace the relationship or person. It may be too painful to try to go on with life without them. Drugs and alcohol often become the replacement. To some, it may seem a bit silly to think of replacing a person with alcohol. It’s not planned, but it does happen. When a person knows they will never be able to speak with or hear from someone they loved ever again, it can be devastating. Seeking momentary relief from the empty, lonely feelings can lead to the use of substances. When a person finds solace in alcohol or drugs repeatedly, it creates a dangerous relationship with them. That is precisely how addiction begins.

How do substances like alcohol, marijuana, and stimulants affect the grieving process?

What’s the relationship between grief and addiction? Grief and substance abuse occur when people turn to using drugs to relieve grief. They attempt to find even temporary relief from their pain. Using substances won’t solve grief and they may find themselves locked into a cycle of grief and addiction.

Alcohol and Grief

Many people reach for alcohol to try to cope with loss. Sometimes it is temporary and short-lived. But for others, it can be the first stage of grief alcoholism where alcohol abuse continues to escalate. People drink to soften, suppress, or avoid feelings of grief. But the final stage of grief alcoholism is severe. Alcohol often delays and complicates the grieving process. When grief is not resolved, felt, or expressed, it can lead to cumulative grief. Each new loss that occurs is linked to all the losses that have come before. Alcohol delays or prohibits the grieving process, which can increase risk factors for complicated grief disorders that can lead to her conditions, including depression, hospitalization, and even suicide.

Marijuana and Grief

Marijuana, similar to alcohol, has a calming and sedative effect. Many people use it to soothe emotional or physical pain. However, the immediate relief provided by marijuana can cause negative moods to worsen over time. It may reduce short-term anxiety or depression, but over time, it exacerbates these and other symptoms. Marijuana and grief may combine to delay or prolong the emotional process needed to work out of the acute grief phase.

Stimulants and Grief

Common stimulants such as methamphetamines, cocaine, and prescription amphetamines (like Adderall), are usually associated with bursts of productivity and energetic behaviors. But some people use stimulants just to numb emotional pain. The problem is that mixing stimulants and grief increases a person’s risk of addiction. It can also increase the risks of other conditions such as long-term depression or complicated grief disorder. Even trying to get off of stimulants can cause a depressed mood, which can not only linger but intensify over time.

Breaking the Cycle of Grief and Substance Abuse

Grief and substance abuse are all too common in the world today. When addiction occurs due to trauma and grief, mental health professionals need to address each issue since they all affect one another. People who find therapeutic outlets during treatment are more able to work through the stages of grief. Once they find and experience acceptance and identify how grief stimulates addictive behaviors, they can develop new mindsets to help. Learning new coping mechanisms can help deal with symptoms of unresolved trauma and grief after successful treatment.


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