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6 Ways Grief Can Lead to Addiction

Grief Leads to Addiction Resurgence - A woman completes an initial assessment with a rehab facilitator to determine how grief can lead to addiction and determine a proper treatment plan for both coping with the grief and addiction

What is the Connection Between Grief and Substance Abuse?


There is a close connection between grief and substance abuse.

Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler Ross identified five stages of grief through which most people pass as they cope with loss.

These stages of grief are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

However, every experience with grief is different. Specific stages, or even the entire cycle, may repeat for some individuals.

All of this can result in destructive behavior, mental health consequences, and substance abuse.

But you do not need to face loss on your own.

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Understanding Grief and Substance Abuse


Grief is a complex emotional experience and, depending on the depth of the loss, the journey to healing may last a lifetime.

While grief is most commonly associated with the death of a loved one, grief can result from a variety of personal losses or life transitions. This can include the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, menopause, aging, the death of a pet, an interpersonal betrayal or disappointment, or a variety of other life experiences.

Even experiences that might otherwise seem happy, like retirement, the graduation of a child, or a marriage, can result in some grieving, as they signify a new chapter of life.

This range of causes is important because grief can often go unrecognized if it is only ascribed to what others consider to be a tragic event.

As individuals work through the difficult emotions that result from a death or major life transition, it is common for unhealthy coping behaviors to take shape, including the use of substances to ease emotional pain.

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Effects of Grief and Substance Abuse


Grief and substance abuse can form a self-perpetuating cycle that requires professional treatment to resolve.

There are many ways that this cycle can form, but below are six common examples of how grief can result in mental health crisis and substance dependence.

Survivor’s Guilt


It is common for those still living after a tragic event to question why they survived, which can lead to a struggle with guilt.

These feelings can run particularly deep for those who feel that their survival directly or indirectly “cost” another individual their chance to live, such as survivors of car accidents, wide-spread illnesses, home or business fires, and other tragic accidents.

In these cases, grief and guilt can result in a desire for self-harm, driving individuals toward high-risk behavior in a subconscious effort to punish themselves for living when others did not.

With treatment, however, these survivors can learn to work through their feelings of guilt and begin again.

Repressed Grief


Grief can result in a variety of other emotions, from anger, to shame, to intense sadness. These overwhelming feelings can be difficult to manage, leading individuals to repress the emotional storm through distractions, denial, and even turning to alcohol and drugs.

Research suggests that men may be predisposed to these avoidant behaviors due to wide-spread socialization that encourages men to ignore difficult emotions and refrain from discussing feelings of vulnerability.

Individuals who are attempting to repress their grief will often deny negative feelings, pushing away those who try to help.

Since it is nearly impossible to entirely repress an emotion, the unhappiness of grief will continue to resurface, leading to a cycle including pain, numbing behaviors, shame, and isolation, until professional treatment is undertaken.

Addiction Becomes a Replacement for Grief


One of the most difficult aspects of grief is the underlying sense of loss. Whether the loss is of a loved one, a relationship, a job, or a life circumstance, the individual suffering may feel unable to address the absence that is felt.

While alcohol and drugs can provide an escape from pain, which slowly becomes a consuming addiction; there are some individuals that turn to addiction as a replacement for the person or situation they loved.

It is widely known that, once addiction has set in, an addict often loses the ability to focus on other relationships and needs. Depending on the depth of the grief, this loss of identity and control can seem to hurt less than the sadness.

The chemical dependence and physical ritual of drug use can become a reassurance, replacing other feelings, and blocking out memories of an earlier life.

The Cycle of Grief and Substance Abuse


Depending on the nature and reason for the loss, substance abuse can create more cause for grief, leading to more drug and alcohol use.

An example of this can be found in individuals who have lost custody of a child due to issues with substance use.

While the pain of the loss is intense, the continued reliance on drugs and alcohol to numb the pain serves to further damage the underlying relationship.

As the addict becomes aware of the pain their struggle or relapse has caused, they are further driven to escape the situation. Therefore, the pain of the grief, and the consequences of numbing it, becomes a cycle that the addict cannot break without professional assistance.

Physical Pain


Since grief is most associated with psychological suffering, it is often forgotten that it can result in physical pain.

Studies show that grief, and the negative emotions it creates, can result in heartburn, high blood pressure, cardiac conditions, insomnia, exhaustion, body aches, and other physical symptoms. It can also worsen self-care, such as exercising, which can exacerbate physical ailments.

The result can be increased prescriptions of painkilling drugs, such as highly addictive opiates. This can easily lead to opiate addiction resulting from a misunderstanding about the true nature of the pain.



Grief and isolation are connected, as are isolation and substance abuse.

Those experiencing emotional pain for which they have no coping strategies, are likely to isolate themselves from others due to shame, anger, depression, or fear of further loss.

However, this isolation increases the likelihood that an individual will feel their life lacks meaning and will turn to drugs or alcohol for help. This behavior only serves to deepen the isolation, damaging relationships, and pushing away those who could help provide connection.

Once this cycle takes hold, it usually requires the compassion of a skilled counselor to help those suffering from grief find peace of mind.

Mental Illness, Grief, and Substance Abuse


As we’ve already seen, the connection between grief, mental illness, and substance abuse is well-established and hard to escape.

It’s also important to note that all three can rewire the brain through chemical imbalances, actually reshaping the perceived reality of the struggling individual – resulting in a loss of hope.

Tragically, without professional intervention, this cycle could potentially result in suicide or accidental death.

For this reason, it is critically important that those whose grief has transitioned to depression and addiction receive immediate help before grief can claim yet another life.

Treatment for Grief and Substance Abuse


Grief can affect anyone at any time. And, as we’ve seen, it is not a battle that most people can fight alone.

Even those who do not turn to substance use may benefit from seeking professional counseling to help release underlying feelings of guilt, anger, blame, and loneliness – all of which can turn physically and emotionally toxic.

Yet for those who have turned to alcohol or drugs to ease the pain of grief, getting help could be a matter of life and death.

There are many treatment options to help those struggling with grief and addiction to find the support they deserve.

And while a situation may seem hopeless to those trapped in addiction, treatment teams understand the stages of grief and the influence of addiction.

With the help of resources such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, group counseling, one-to-one therapy, anger management, stress management, clinical detoxification, treatment for physical ailments, and nutrition counseling, those experiencing grief can learn healthy coping strategies, as well as how to embrace joy and connection once again.

Payment Information


Do you want treatment but are worried about how you can pay for it?

We have a team of financial professionals who provide free insurance verification. We will work with you to determine how to move forward with the treatment in a way that works for you and your financial situation.

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How to Get Help


With grief, it is easy to feel that hope is lost.

But, our compassionate treatment team of medical professionals, certified counselors, and licensed therapists understand the role of grief in addiction, and we can help you find a brighter future.

We can assist with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to treat underlying thought patterns, along with safe prescriptions, counseling to help with depression and withdrawal, group therapies, and many more coping strategies to help you cope in a healthy manner and eventually thrive again after a loss.

Call Resurgence Behavioral Health at 855-458-0050 to book your appointment. Peace of mind awaits.

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