Woman struggling with substance abuse and grief

The Connection Between Substance Abuse and Unresolved Grief

You are not alone when dealing with unresolved grief and substance abuse. Many people struggle with both simultaneously. Grief and addiction can be a dangerous combination, but professional help is available.

At The Right Step Houston, our caring and compassionate staff members are here to help you through this difficult time. We offer a variety of treatment options that can address substance abuse and grief. With our help, you can begin to heal and move on with your life. Call 1.844.768.0169 to improve your quality of life today. 

What Is Grief?

Grief is a natural reaction to loss. It’s the process of trying to cope and make sense of your emotions after a loved one dies. Many things can cause grief, including: 

  • Losing a job can result in grief regarding needed income or a lack of purpose 
  • Losing practical bodily function in cases of injury or disease
  • The loss of a loved one through divorce or desertion 
  • The loss of personal bodily autonomy in cases of abuse

In other words: grief usually comes after the loss of someone or something meaningful, often without any choice on your part in the matter and with lasting consequences. 

What Does a Typical Grief Journey Look Like?

While nothing about grief could be described as typical by the person living through it, researchers have identified a pattern that most people follow on a healthy grief journey. 

Referred to as a “bird’s eye perspective,” the process involves making your way along a road full of obstacles to acceptance of the inevitability of the loss. The journey’s end consists of the integration of reality involving the loss into ongoing life and a re-imagination of a future with the possibility of joy and satisfaction.

While this pattern does not indicate when or how long—grief happens on its own schedule—it does show forward motion, with the ultimate goal of grief taking a backseat to your everyday life. Still present, not forgotten, but no longer dominating the thoughts of your day. 

What Is Unresolved Grief?

For some people, grief is a brief and manageable emotion. But for others, it can be much more intense and long-lasting. This is called unresolved grief, and it can lead to several unwanted symptoms, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Difficulty functioning at work or school
  • Relationship problems
  • Sleep pattern changes

If you or someone you love is struggling with unresolved grief, developing a substance abuse problem may also happen. Substance abuse can be a way to numb the pain of grief or escape from reality. But, unfortunately, it only leads to more problems.

How Do Unresolved Grief and Addiction Interact?

While family and friends may come in to offer practical support, you still have to face every day without the person you love. That’s so incredibly difficult. It makes sense that you might find yourself with a glass of wine on the couch each night, breathing through the pain. Maybe you drink a second glass most nights to solidify that peaceful feeling. Or perhaps you double down on sleeping pills to rest. Maybe you take some prescription opioids to ease all the pain you’re feeling. Perhaps you get high. 

You likely see these actions as coping mechanisms—a way to make it through another day. And you probably view them as temporary. You might even say, “As soon as I get over this hurdle, I’ll stop.” Still, there’s a reason you might consider stopping now and getting help if you need it. 

Self-Medication Can Make It Harder to Cope with Difficult Situations

Some people struggling with grief use substances to numb pain, making it harder for them to cope with grief and other difficult life situations over the long haul. 

If you’re facing the loss of a loved one, you may start using a substance to cope with your loss. But because life does not slow down, typical non-grief-related stressors will still show up from time to time. Your mind and body will be accustomed to handling tough times with drugs or alcohol. You may up your current level of substance consumption to cope with new stressors. You can easily see how addictions form over time when a person uses drugs or alcohol to cope with grief.

The Pandemic Has Increased Instances of Unresolved Grief and Substance Abuse

More than six million people all over the world have died from COVID-19. Lives and livelihoods hang in the balance every single day. People have lost loved ones, jobs, access to childcare, and so much more. The usual tragedies of life remain, as well. 

Grief is rampant. It’s no wonder that there has been an alarming number of overdose deaths in recent years. In 2021, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. died of an overdose. That number represents a 28.5% increase, year over year.

How Are Grief and Addiction Treated Effectively?

You know that “getting over it” isn’t an option. If it were, you would have done that already. Still, if you hope to break free from the oppressive coupling of grief and addiction, you’d likely benefit from professional help. You can work with medical and mental health professionals at a treatment center to get back on the healthy journey of grief navigation and break free from any unhealthy coping mechanisms you’ve picked up. 

With a licensed therapist, you can:

  • Identify negative behaviors like criticizing yourself, unrealistic thinking, and social isolation
  • Replace those behaviors with habits that build your ability to solve problems and take action
  • Learn to reach out for help when you need it

With time, you’ll learn to cope with all that life throws your way without reaching for drugs or alcohol. You’ll mourn in a way that allows you to connect fully with who or what you lost and to imagine joy in your new and present reality. And then, to go out and find it. 

Learn More About Addiction Treatment at The Right Step Houston

A comprehensive and customized addiction treatment plan can incorporate your unresolved grief, trauma, and any other underlying mental health issues you may be facing. The Right Step Houston is here to help you on your journey to wellness and sobriety. Contact us today at 1.844.768.0169 to learn more about our evidence-based approach to addiction treatment.

Scroll to Top