Grief and Substance Abuse

Grief is the term used to describe the emotional, physical, behavioral and social responses to the loss of someone or something a person has a bond with. Grief can occur in response to a relationship breakdown, the death of a loved friend, family member, partner or child. It can also occur when a person undergoes significant life changes such as moving homes, changing jobs, giving up an addiction, even after an operation.

Grief is often associated with crying, anger and depression. But these emotions are not the only ones people experience when they are grieving. Some people feel emptiness and find themselves unable to express how they are feeling. Others will get angry and frustrated and may lash out at those around them. Some people will begin to use alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with grief, as they find they can forget the emotional upheaval they are going through while dealing with their loss.

Grieving is an Emotional Time

When a person is experiencing grief, they will undergo many emotional changes. They will be angry, frustrated, sad, ashamed, guilty, relieved and feel that the situation is hopeless. People may ask themselves questions, putting into doubt their previous actions or taking on blame for the loss. These questions are a part of the grieving process. For friends and family of the person grieving, they may be exposed to the fluctuating emotional states the person is undergoing which can lead to frustration, fear and depression. They may want to help in any way possible, even if it means tough love or smothering a person with kindness.

There is no normal or right way for someone to grieve. Everybody reacts differently to the loss of something or someone. Dealing with that loss in a healthy manner is the best possible way to be able to continue to move on from the trauma. Spending time with family members, friends, having alone time, attending professional counseling services, exercising and meditation are all beneficial for someone grieving. Having support from people can reduce the risks of falling into a deep depression, turning to substances or harming themselves.

Turning to Drugs and Alcohol

During this emotional time, some people may turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with their loss. They may feel that there is comfort in drugs or alcohol, that the substances are there for them when they need them. They could also be using substances to punish themselves for their loss, such as in the case of a relationship breakdown, an accident, or the loss of a child.

Many people who begin to use substances at a time of loss do so to ignore their emotions and appear to be strong when they are not. This is particularly true for men who often feel that it is a weakness to cry, need other people, and be sad. Substances are used to numb the emotional responses and feelings so they don’t lose control or appear weak. This fear of losing control emotionally can be very strong in some people and difficult to break.

Using substances at a time of grief can have very serious implications. A person may become reckless and do things that they would otherwise not do because of their emotional state. They may use multiple drugs, drink to excess, engage in risk-behaviors, share needles or take drugs they would otherwise not take. Additionally, they may begin to associate with people who take drugs also and surround themselves with people who are unstable and potentially harmful. Some people may isolate themselves and take drugs by themselves. This may be done to run away from their feelings and from people who may want to talk about their loss and remind them of the sad time they are going through. This is particularly relevant for people who have a family history of anxiety, depression or a history of negative behavior patterns.

Substance Abuse Hides Grief

Some people who have significant substance abuse issues, such as chronic alcoholism, may have used substances for a long time to hide their grief. They could have begun using the substances many years before to numb the emotional changes they were going through, to ignore the issues that were occurring and to create a bubble around themselves where they did not have to take responsibility for the problems.

When a person comes into a treatment facility with a substance abuse problem, this loss will often come out through therapy and counseling and the person can begin to see how they have not dealt with their grief. In many cases, coming to terms with the loss with the helpful support of therapists, family and friend can help a person overcome their addiction easier. They can see how the abuse of substances has not helped the problem at all.

Grieving for an Addiction

When people undergo significant life changes, there is always an element of loss associated with that change. When that loss is an addiction to a substance, it can be quite severe. Giving up an addictive lifestyle can be traumatic and those going through recovery can grieve for the loss of the drug, the distraction, the feelings the drug invokes, the rituals associated with the drug and the people they took drugs with.

Some people will grieve the freedom and lack of responsibility that comes with a substance abuse lifestyle. When under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it is easy to ignore things that are not fun, not interesting and boring. It also means that they have to realize the effects of their behavior on those around them, including partners and children who they may have neglected.

Overcoming an addiction is not an easy, fun or exciting time. It can be difficult and challenging and many people will relapse into the addiction because it is so hard. Taking responsibility for actions, behaviors, emotions and events that have contributed to the addiction is stressful but with support and commitment, it can be done. Dealing with traumatic losses that have caused a person to grieve and turn to substances will also help on the road to recovery.

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