The Link Between Grief and Substance Abuse

Grief is a natural response to loss, particularly to the loss of a significant individual or family pet. However, as was all too clear during the 2020 pandemic year, the link between grief and substance abuse can also be related to reduced social support, changes in employment status, financial hardships and a decreased sense of safety. As a result, people became isolated and stressed, which led to unhealthy decisions like drinking more and using drugs.

People who suffer loss will experience grief in many ways. While some cope by engaging in healthy things like talk therapy, others look for external, unhealthy ways to cope like using drugs or alcohol. According to a study conducted by American Addiction Centers, people suffering from complicated grief (a form of prolonged and unrelenting grief that occurs in approximately 10-20% of bereaved individuals) are particularly vulnerable to developing an addiction. In fact, brain scans of individuals suffering from complicated grief suggested that memories of loved ones may trigger certain neural pathways that promote addictive behaviors.

Grief and substance abuse

For many, drinking alcohol or using drugs is an effective way to take the edge off or numb negative feelings, but substance use can actually perpetuate grief. Why? Alcohol and certain drugs function as depressants, which means they slow down the central nervous system and brain. When your body can’t function properly, it’s harder to process difficult emotions. Here are three ways grief and addiction are linked:

  1. Emotions
    Emotions are complex. They not only affect your mental health but your physical health as well. Untouched emotions can lead to things like digestive problems, fatigue, insomnia, inflammation, anxiety, headaches and muscle pain. This can lead a person to use drugs and alcohol to forget the pain, which can turn into addiction.
  2. Depression
    Drugs and alcohol make us numb, but they also have consequences. Because they often work as a depressant, they can make you feel worse after using them. This can lead to more negative feelings like depression, anxiety, stress, guilt, shame or even health issues.
  3. Poor coping skills
    Many smart, successful people may not have the tools to deal with grief, loss or trauma in a healthy way, or they may be unable to use them when tragedy strikes. According to a recent study in JAMA (Journal of American Medical Association) Psychiatry, approximately 1 in 8 adults meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder in the United States. It is estimated that 90% of people who struggle with substance abuse will most likely have some form of mental health disorder as well. This suggests alcohol is a popular, coping mechanism in our society


The good news is grief and addiction can be treated together. The skilled team at Miramar Recovery Center offers a specialized dual diagnosis treatment program to help those struggling with addiction as well as grief, depression, anxiety or other mental disorder. Our highly trained staff will work with you to develop an individualized treatment plan that addresses both your unique mental health and substance abuse disorders. 

We’ll be here when you or your loved one is ready to take the next step toward a new, sober life. Call Miramar Recovery Center at (949) 691-5036 to ask us about our dual diagnosis treatment programs or to schedule a free consultation today.

We’re committed to your health, well-being and lasting recovery.