Grief and Addiction

Grief, unfortunately, is a natural part of life that all of us go through at some point. Some can cope with grief in their own way and emerge successfully, but this is not always the case for others. Some may feel that drugs and alcohol are the only ways to numb the pain during the grieving process. This is why many experience co-occurring issues with grief and addiction.

What is grief?

Grief is a complex and deeply emotional response to loss, typically associated with the death of a loved one, but it can also be triggered by other significant life changes or the end of a meaningful relationship. It is a universal human experience and everyone navigates the grieving process uniquely.

Those who are grieving feel a mix of emotions, including sadness, anger, guilt, confusion and even relief. The emotional landscape of grief can be unpredictable, with feelings arising unexpectedly or intensifying at certain moments. People may also experience physical symptoms of grief like fatigue, changes in appetite, or difficulty sleeping.

Examples of grief can be found in various aspects of life. When someone loses a family member, friend, or pet, they might experience grief. Similarly, individuals may grieve the loss of a job, a home, or a sense of identity.

What are the five stages of grief?

The stages of grief were initially introduced by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book ‘On Death and Dying’. These stages are not necessarily experienced in a linear or predictable order, and individuals may go through them in different ways and at different paces. It’s important to note that grief is a highly personal and unique experience; not everyone will go through all these stages. The stages are:

Denial: In this stage of grief, individuals may have difficulty accepting the reality of the situation. They may feel a sense of shock or numbness, and there might be a tendency to deny the severity of the loss.

Anger: As the reality of the loss sets in, people may start to experience anger. This anger can be directed towards oneself, others, or the situation. It’s a natural part of the grieving process.

Bargaining: In this stage of grief, individuals may try to negotiate or make deals to reverse or lessen the impact of the loss. They might make promises or seek ways to change the circumstances.

Depression: This stage of grief involves a deep sense of sadness and despair about the loss. It’s important to distinguish between normal grief-related sadness and clinical depression, but it’s normal to feel a profound sense of sadness during the grieving process.

Acceptance: In the final stage of grief, individuals begin to come to terms with the reality of the loss. Acceptance doesn’t mean happiness or joy but rather finding a way to live with the new reality and adjusting to life without the person or thing that was lost.

Why do we experience grief?

The experience of grief has both psychological and physiological components, and various factors, including neurological processes, hormonal changes, and evolutionary perspectives, influence it. While grief is primarily a psychological and emotional response to loss, certain biological mechanisms contribute to the way we perceive and cope with the experience.

Neurological factors
Amygdala activation: The amygdala, a region in the brain associated with processing emotions, particularly fear and sadness, plays a crucial role in the experience of grief. The perception of loss can trigger heightened activity in the amygdala, intensifying emotional responses.

Medial prefrontal cortex involvement: The medial prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and regulating emotions, is also engaged during grief. This area helps individuals process and make sense of the loss, impacting cognitive functions related to grief resolution.

Hormonal changes
Stress hormones: The body’s stress response is activated during grief, increasing stress hormones like cortisol. These hormonal changes can contribute to physical symptoms of grief, such as fatigue, changes in appetite and disrupted sleep patterns.

Oxytocin release: Grieving individuals may experience an increase in oxytocin. This hormone is associated with social bonding and attachment, and its release can influence feelings of connection and support-seeking during times of loss.

Evolutionary perspectives
Attachment theory: From an evolutionary standpoint, attachment is a fundamental aspect of human survival. Grief can be seen as a response to the disruption of these attachment bonds. The emotional pain associated with loss may serve as a motivator to seek support from others, strengthening social bonds and increasing the chances of survival within a community.

Adaptation: Grief is considered an adaptive response to loss, helping individuals navigate life’s challenges by promoting emotional processing and resilience. The intense emotions associated with grief prompt individuals to reflect on the significance of the lost relationship or situation, facilitating personal growth and adaptation over time.

How do you cope with grief?

Coping with grief is a highly individual and personal process; there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. People find different strategies helpful, but it’s crucial to acknowledge that what works for one person may not work for another. While there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, certain approaches are generally considered more adaptive and conducive to healing, while others can be detrimental. Here are common positive coping mechanisms:

  • Expressing emotions
    Allowing yourself to feel and express various emotions, including sadness, anger and confusion, can be a healthy part of the grieving process. This might involve talking to friends or a therapist, writing in a journal, or engaging in creative activities.
  • Seeking support
    Sharing feelings with friends, family, or a support group can provide comfort and understanding. Don’t hesitate to lean on others during difficult times.
  • Self-care
    Taking care of your physical and emotional well-being is crucial. Ensure you get enough rest, eat well and engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation.
  • Establishing rituals
    Creating meaningful rituals or memorial activities can help honour the memory of the person or thing you’ve lost. This might include lighting candles, creating a scrapbook, or participating in a significant event.
  • Professional help
    Seeking guidance from a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counsellor, can offer additional support and coping strategies tailored to your individual needs.
  • Why does grief co-occur with addiction so often?

    While we did state there is no right or wrong way to grieve; there are certain routes that many take to help deal with the pain of substance abuse. It’s important to note that while drugs and alcohol may provide temporary relief, they do not address the root causes of grief and can lead to additional physical and mental health issues. Substance use can complicate the grieving process and hinder the natural healing that comes with time, support and healthier coping strategies.

    So why do so many steer down this path?

    The experience of grief can be overpowering, with emotional pain that seems almost unbearable. Faced with this intensity, some individuals turn to drugs or alcohol in a quest to numb or escape from their feelings, seeking a reprieve from the emotional burden that accompanies loss.

    For others, substance use becomes a form of self-medication, particularly when dealing with the anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges that often accompany grief. In these instances, drugs and alcohol may be viewed as a means to manage or temporarily alleviate the distressing symptom of grief, offering a semblance of relief amid emotional turmoil.

    Grieving is a multifaceted and demanding process, and not everyone possesses well-developed coping mechanisms to navigate such profound emotional upheaval. In the absence of healthier alternatives, turning to substances can emerge as an attempt to fill a void in coping skills as individuals deal with the overwhelming weight of their emotions.

    Moreover, some individuals may harbour a misguided belief in the coping effectiveness of drugs or alcohol. In their quest for solace, they might perceive these substances as quick and accessible solutions without fully grasping the potential long-term consequences.

    This perception can lead to a reliance on substances as a coping mechanism, which then could lead to addiction. This inadvertently complicates the grieving process and hinders the natural course of healing that comes with time and healthier strategies for managing emotional distress.

    Grief and those already suffering from addiction

    It must be remembered that not all grief starts before the addiction. Grief can intensify the usage of substances, which is especially damaging if someone already has an addiction.

    It’s essential for individuals with pre-existing addictions who are grieving to seek support and professional help throughout their time of need.

    Research suggests that in these types of scenarios, those with pre-existing addictions are at risk of developing complicated grief. Complicated grief is a prolonged and intensified mourning process characterised by persistent and debilitating symptoms of grief, hindering the ability to adapt to loss. It involves intense yearning, avoidance of reminders and difficulty moving forward.

    Not only this, but those who already have an addiction are more likely to experience negative outcomes while dealing with grief. For example, research suggests that the experience of grief and the loss of social support networks can destabilise individuals with Opioid Use Disorder (OUD), leading to severe outcomes such as overdose, suicide and other harmful consequences.

    Treatment for grief and addiction

    Recovery from addiction is a challenging journey, but it’s crucial to possess a diverse array of tools and strategies to navigate this path successfully. Addressing both grief and addiction concurrently during recovery can enhance overall success outcomes.

    While UKAT doesn’t offer specific rehab for grief, many of our rehab treatment approaches to addiction will also help to address the grief you are experiencing.

    • Individual and group counselling sessions are tailored to explore the root causes of addiction, providing a platform for individuals to express and process their emotions, including grief. We use Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) that equips individuals with emotional regulation skills, crucial for managing both addiction and grief.
    • Holistic therapies like yoga and meditation are integrated into treatment plans, promoting overall well-being. These practices enhance self-awareness, reduce stress and contribute to emotional resilience. This creates a conducive environment for addressing grief alongside addiction.
    • Aftercare is a crucial component, ensuring sustained support post-treatment. Group therapy sessions facilitate shared experiences and reinforce coping strategies, helping individuals navigate grief while maintaining their recovery.

    The synergy of these therapeutic approaches not only tackles drug addiction but also provides a holistic foundation for individuals to confront and cope with their grief effectively.

    The next steps

    If you’re facing the heavy burden of grief and addiction, know that you’re not alone. At UKAT, we understand the profound impact these challenges can have. Reach out to us for compassionate support and effective treatment. Our team is here to guide you towards healing, offering a caring environment where you can reclaim hope and rebuild your life.

    Call us now for help

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