Grief and Alcohol

grief[1]Losing someone you love is one of the most painful trials life can throw your way.  It’s common to experience a range of emotions, from denial and anger to sadness and despair. Each person who goes through the grieving process does it in his or her unique way. Some, however, will turn to alcohol or drugs in a desperate attempt to numb the intense pain, sadness, and grief that so often follow a major loss.  Unfortunately, for some, self-medicating emotional pain can lead to the development of a full-blown alcohol or drug addiction.

Grief’s Impact on Mental Health

eye[1]Grief can take a serious toll, even on the most resilient individuals.  During the grieving process, it’s important to experience and express emotions in order to eventually heal and get on with life.  However, some people struggle with unresolved grief — grief that lasts much longer than normal.  This type of grief makes it very hard for anyone to adequately manage life’s daily tasks.

Unresolved grief often develops when a person feels guilt over the loss, considers the death unfair, or has lost a loved one through an unexpected or violent death. Unresolved grief can also occur after a loss that others might not consider particularly traumatic, such as a miscarriage.

Sometimes individuals experiencing this type of grief act as though nothing has changed. In fact, they may refuse to talk about the death or about the person they lost. This most often occurs when there is shame or stigma connected to the death; for instance, if the loved one died because he or she was driving under the influence. Others who struggle with unresolved grief may become preoccupied with the lost loved one and have a hard time talking about anything else.

Grief can also trigger clinical depression. When this occurs, the grieving person may start to feel hopeless or helpless, experience persi-love-you-again-movie-end-title-still[1]istent fatigue, have difficulties sleeping and find it hard to concentrate.  Depression also increases the risk of suicidal thoughts or actions.  While it’s not uncommon for grief to elicit thoughts of wanting to be with the loved one who was lost, unresolved grief and depression can make suicide seem like the only way to end the unrelenting pain.

Grief and Substance Abuse

Unresolved grief and depression can make a person more vulnerable to developing a substance abuse problem. Someone unable to work through their feelings of loss in a healthy way may self-medicate, turning to alcohol or drugs.  While these substances may relieve or numb the grief-induced pain, the effect is short-lived.

shutterstock_32707246[1]Unfortunately, self-medicating with substances won’t take away the pain of loss.  In fact, alcohol and many drugs act as depressants in the body.  They may intensify negative emotions, such as sadness or shame. In addition, substance abuse complicates every aspect of life, from the ability to hold a job to the quality of relationships. Abusing alcohol or drugs creates negative emotions and conflicts that make it harder to work through grief in a healthy way.

Other risk factors can raise the chance for substance abuse during the grieving process. For example, a person with a history of anxiety, depression, previous addiction, or a lack of social support is more prone to turn to alcohol or drugs to cope after a loved one’s death. Those with a family history of alcoholism or drug addiction may be more vulnerable as well.

Grief-support[1]Reach out for grief support. In the days and weeks following a death, loved ones left behind are often inundated with support. Over time, however, that support significantly drops off, leaving a profound sense of isolation for those who are still grieving. A grief support group can provide much-needed support and resources so you no longer need to feel as though you are alone. If possible, find a group that matches your unique situation. For instance, if you’ve lost a child, seek support from those who have gone through the same experience. When a local group isn’t available, consider online support forums.

Consider family counseling. Both grief and alcohol or drug addiction impact the entire family. A death in the family often revibeginningof+love[1]ves past hurts and resentments, in addition to creating new ones.  Not only that, substance abuse and addiction can divide families and create tremendous strife. A skilled family therapist can help family members address those issues and teach constructive ways to handle conflict.

Substance abuse does not provide a healthy escape from feelings of grief and loss. If you are grieving a loss and struggling with substance abuse or addiction, professional treatment will help both.  Contact an alcohol or drug addiction treatment center to start putting the pieces of your life back together, so you can find the joy and hope you deserve.

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