Overview: Grief can lead to substance addiction for some people as they try to cope with loss by numbing their minds or distracting themselves from their feelings. Studies support this link. Substance use can prolong the grieving process and prevent people from learning better coping skills.
There Are Many Types of Grief
The past year has been particularly hard for most people. Many have lost loved ones to the pandemic or other causes. But grief is not restricted to loss from death; people can experience grief over lost jobs, lost homes, and lack of contact with loved ones due to social distancing. A powerful reason for grieving over the last year is the loss of the world as we knew it before COVID-19 and the feeling that “normal” may never be regained.
It is common to react in different ways to grief, from emotional reactions like anger and crying to less overt reactions like avoidance and ignoring or denying your feelings. Many people also feel numb from grief, which normally comes from being overwhelmed by the strong feelings grieving brings.
It can take months and often years to complete the grieving process. Some people never complete it, and that is normal for them. There are often many reminders of the loss, and each time the grieving person experiences one, it is like a new, fresh wound.
A Coping Skill
For some people, substance addiction can be a coping skill, albeit a maladaptive one, into which they channel their grief. Studies have shown a link between grief and substance use, particularly increased alcohol use among men in the first two years after an impactful loss.
Society sends people all kinds of messages about how alcohol and drugs can help them cope with losses or stresses in life. Popular sayings make it clear that it is almost expected to have a beer, a glass of wine, or even to smoke marijuana when you are stressed out or emotionally volatile, like when you are grieving.
Individuals who act on these messages usually find that substance use does help numb or distract from the feelings of grief — initially. Over time, though, they realize that the relief is short-term. They need to use the substance again and again to experience the same feelings, and there are often diminishing returns where more of the substance needs to be used to get the same relief.
Learning a Better Way
In the end, substance use fails to solve the problem of grief, and it can also lead to addiction and the exacerbation of mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Healthier ways of dealing with grief can also be delayed when the bereaved person turns to substance use instead.
Harris House can help those caught in substance addiction, including addiction related to grief. Call us to learn about admissions to our programs and see if they are a good fit for you or a loved one who needs help.