Grief is a natural response of confusion, emotion or sorrow that occurs upon losing something or someone. Most commonly, people experience grief after the death of a loved one or pet. However, grief is also a typical reaction to job loss, divorce or the deterioration of health.

Many people experience grief at some point in their lives. They may deal with intense sadness after being separated from a close friend when a family member passes away or during strenuous economic times. Feelings of grief can affect thoughts, behaviors and relationships.

To numb painful emotions caused by grief, some individuals engage in substance use. Drugs or alcohol may temporarily reduce stress and create euphoria, but substance use can lead to severe health problems, including addiction.

Symptoms of Grief

For many people, grief can be overwhelming. While grieving, they may feel a deep sense of sadness or numbness that can contribute to an inability to carry out everyday responsibilities like cleaning their home or taking care of their children.

Normal grief usually fades over time. However, grief that lasts for an extended period of time is called complicated grief. Complicated grief is an ongoing sense of mourning that keeps people from healing in a timely fashion.

According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms of complicated grief may include:

  • Significant psychological pain and sorrow
  • Isolation or detachment
  • Trouble focusing on anything other than the source of your grief
  • Problems accepting your loss
  • A belief that you caused the loss
  • Depressive symptoms
  • Anxiety

Someone’s personal traits, their relationship with the deceased and their socioeconomic status affects bereavement. These factors can increase the risk of additional health complications and vulnerability to the effects of grief.

Some people may experience physical complications while grieving, including:

  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea
  • Trembling
  • Difficulties eating and sleeping
  • Muscle weakness
  • Trouble breathing

People who are grieving may also experience anger. They may show disdain toward a person associated with the source of grief, including themselves. According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly everyone who grieves also deals with guilt.

Grief is often conflated with depression, but these mental health conditions differ from each other. Depression is a clinical disorder that affects the way a person thinks, feels and behaves. Whereas guilt typically fades with time, depression can last a lifetime. However, intense grief that does not dissipate over time can result in depression.

Some people experience grief so intensely that they lose the desire to live. In extreme cases, grief can lead to suicidal thoughts. If you’re contemplating ending your life, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911.

Grief and Addiction

While grieving, people may struggle to cope with their feelings. They might look for anything to reduce the effects of grief, even if relief comes from drugs or alcohol. However, drugs or alcohol can exacerbate symptoms of grief and result in various other health problems.

2012 study examined the relationship between bereavement and alcohol. According to the report, the risk of drinking problems in the three years after the loss of a loved one was higher among men than women. Researchers opined that alcohol use might contribute to the high mortality rates among bereaved men.

The more someone uses drugs or alcohol, the higher their tolerance to these substances becomes. Over time, as their tolerance to these substances rises, they may consume them in higher quantities to satisfy their cravings. Regular substance use can eventually bring about addiction.

Grief can also trigger a recurrence of substance use among people in recovery. While dealing with feelings of guilt or sadness, individuals with a history of addiction may experience intense cravings to use drugs or alcohol.

Once individuals in recovery begin using drugs or alcohol again, it can be difficult to stop. Their bodies once again adapt to substance use and their cravings can become more intense. If they engage in substance use while grieving, their risk of overdose increases.

Grief Treatment Plan

therapist leads a session of group therapy

The length of time spent grieving varies. For some people, grief can last a few weeks. For others, it can last several months or even years. However, speaking with a mental health expert can speed up the grieving process.

Psychotherapy is an effective method for reducing symptoms of grief. The psychotherapy techniques used to treat grief are similar to those used to ease symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

During therapy, individuals dealing with grief may:

  • Learn ways to improve their coping skills
  • Explore and process their thoughts and emotions
  • Learn about complicated grief and how it can be overcome
  • Reduce feelings of blame and guilt

Little evidence exists about the effectiveness of medications in treating grief. Antidepressants might be helpful in reducing symptoms of grief, but more research must be done to confirm this theory. Before using any medication with the intention of treating grief, speak with a physician.

Upon receiving professional assistance for grief, individuals should adhere to their treatment plans. Attending therapy regularly and practicing the lessons learned during psychotherapy, including stress-management techniques, can improve a person’s ability to cope with symptoms of grief.

While grieving, it is also important to connect with family and friends. Loved ones can provide emotional support during difficult times. Individuals who are grieving can also reach out to their faith community for relief and encouragement.

Treating Co-Occurring Grief and Substance Abuse

People cannot wish away a substance use disorder. Addiction is a brain disease that affects physical, emotional and behavioral health. The best way for people to learn to better manage their addiction is to seek professional help.

A 2006 study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment analyzed the effectiveness of motivational interviewing in treating complicated grief among people with substance use disorders. Researchers discovered a reduction in cravings and inventory scores for complicated grief.

Through treatment, people experiencing co-occurring disorders involving grief can learn ways to better manage their stress. Mental health professionals often teach individuals ways to avoid stressful situations, including those that can trigger substance use. The Recovery Village offers evidence-based treatment for people with substance use and mental health disorders. Trained addiction experts cater treatment plans to meet the specific needs of individuals. To learn more about how treatment can improve your life, contact The Recovery Village today.

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