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How Unacknowledged Grief and Loss Can Lead to Addiction

Addiction is a complex illness with both biological and environmental triggers. Although there is no single factor that is guaranteed to cause a person to develop a substance use disorder, unacknowledged grief and loss can put a person at risk. 

Types of Grief and Loss

When most people think of grief, they imagine someone mourning the passing of a loved one. However, the death of a friend or family member is not the only type of event that can trigger feelings of grief. Other types of loss that can lead to this type of emotional distress include:

  • Being diagnosed with a serious illness
  • Being seriously injured in an accident
  • Having a loved one who is ill or injured
  • Unexpected job loss 
  • A dramatic drop in income that forces significant lifestyle changes
  • Estrangement from a friend or family member
  • Divorce or the breakup of a long-term romantic relationship
  • Struggles with infertility
  • The loss of a beloved pet
  • Being displaced from your home by a natural disaster

There is a tendency for people to try to “rank” grief experiences, but it’s important to resist the urge to assign a specific value to the loss you’ve experienced. The emotions associated with grieving are valid regardless of their underlying cause. 

Ways People React to Grief

Grief is accompanied by a wide range of emotions. Sadness, shock, confusion, and anger are all common. Sometimes, a person will feel guilty or ashamed. They may believe their own actions contributed to the loss or feel as though they aren’t entitled to grieve because others have been through more traumatic experiences. 

It is important to realize there is no single “right” way to deal with grief. For example, it is normal to cry in reaction to a loss—but it’s also normal if a person doesn’t cry or if they burst out laughing while sharing a happy memory related to their loss. Grief is messy and often confusing.

Grief is not an illness, so there’s a timeline for when a person will be done processing their loss. Feelings of grief may be less intense over time, but it’s common for anniversaries, holidays, or milestone events to trigger intense emotions. 

How Grief and Loss Can Lead to Addiction

There are two common myths about grief that can lead to substance use disorders: 

  • Pain will go away faster when it is ignored. 
  • It’s best to be “strong” in the face of loss.

Grief is a form of trauma, and it simply can’t be ignored. Drugs and alcohol might provide a temporary escape from the emotional pain of grief, but the feelings will come back. Since tolerance to an abused substance develops over time, this approach only adds to the problems that must be dealt with. 

Being “strong” in the face of loss doesn’t mean ignoring your feelings and acting as though nothing has happened. Your goal should be to build resilience by acknowledging what you’ve experienced and finding healthy ways to move forward. Some healthy ways to deal with grief include:

  • Write about your feelings in a journal.
  • Make a memorial scrapbook.
  • Volunteer or make a charitable donation to ensure that something positive comes from your loss.
  • Talk to a trusted friend or family member.
  • Seek advice from a counselor or therapist.

The Impact of Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

Grief and loss are most likely to lead to struggles with drug and alcohol abuse when a person has a co-occurring mental health disorder. Someone who is already dealing with the effects of depression, anxiety, PTSD, or a similar mental health condition may not have the emotional bandwidth to handle their grief in a healthy way. 

Drug and alcohol use can have the added effect of worsening the symptoms of a co-occurring mental health disorder. For example, alcohol is a depressant that can increase the symptoms of clinical depression. In extreme cases, this can lead to thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

Getting Help for Grief and Loss

If you are struggling with grief and substance abuse, Waypoint Recovery Center can provide the help you need to move forward. Our South Carolina residential addiction treatment center provides evidence-based care for men and women diagnosed with substance use disorders, and all graduates receive access to extensive aftercare resources designed to support the transition back to independent living. Now is your time to enter recovery.