Can Grief Lead to Addiction?

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Grief can be an overwhelming and crushing emotion. It is an emotion without a timetable. Grief can last for days, weeks, months, or in some cases, even years. Grief is painful, and there is no quick resolution to the pain. Grief and the associated emotional turmoil can arise for various reasons and trigger an emotional roller coaster that can be a painful and exhausting ride. As humans, our natural reaction is to avoid pain; thus, it is our natural instinct to avoid dealing with grief if at all possible. Unfortunately, this avoidance accomplishes nothing other than prolonging grief.

Everyone deals with grief differently. Some express their emotions through anger, sadness, or frustration. Others suppress their pain or are unable to express their grief and therefore turn to self-medication as a coping strategy. While counterproductive, it is easy to see why some people turn to substances to avoid pain. Unfortunately, self-medication often leads to addiction and compounds problems associated with grief.

What Causes Grief?

Grief can arise from many different life events. One of the challenges associated with understanding grief is realizing how differently each person may handle a particular event. Similar to trauma and other related anxiety disorders, what causes grief for one person may not for another. Some of the events that may cause normal grief could include:

  • The death of a loved one or a close friend
  • Divorce (either personal or parents)
  • Loss of a pet
  • Ending of a relationship or friendship
  • Job loss or significant adverse financial change
  • Moving or other adverse loss of familiar surroundings
  • Recollections of previous losses, abuses or trauma

Grief can result from any significant loss, change, or traumatic experience. For people abusing substances, the loss of personal identity, self, and realization of a life wasted in substance abuse can be the most significant grief-causing trauma of all. Regret can turn to grieving which can lead further down the addiction spiral. Once someone has reached this stage of addiction resulting from extreme grief, an intensive treatment program, as found at The Hills in Los Angeles, California, is the most successful way to address their needs. They likely find it difficult to exit the grief-substance-addiction spiral on their own. A therapeutic program designed to address their mental health and addiction issues concurrently will be the most effective way to help achieve sobriety and continued recovery.

The Impacts of Grief

Grief and loss are intensely personal issues, and there is no typical or traditional response seen across the board. However, psychology experts recognize five main stages of grief that each person goes through (in some form) while processing a grief inducing event.

Although grief and loss are deeply personal issues, and there is no typical response, psychology experts recognize five main stages of grief. The five stages model was first introduced in 1969 and has remained a valuable tool for educating people about the grieving process. Although the stages are listed in a particular order, it is important to remember that people may not experience every stage, they may not experience them in order. They may move forward and then regress one or more times before reaching acceptance.


Denial is often considered the “first” stage of the grieving process. During this stage, a person may attempt to respond to feelings associated with grief by pretending the loss or change didn’t or isn’t happening. Denial allows time to absorb the event more gradually and find a way to begin processing it. Denial is a pervasive defense mechanism that helps to numb the pain associated with the immediate situation.


Denial is often considered a coping mechanism. Anger, on the other hand, is viewed as a way to mask emotion. Anger allows one to hide (or mask) many of the painful emotions they are carrying. Feelings our outbursts of anger may be directed at other people, yourself, or even inanimate objects. Your brain may understand that your anger is irrational, but your emotions are often too intense at the moment to act upon this logic. Not everyone will experience this stage, and others may linger here until they are better able to process their emotions.


While grieving, it is natural to feel helpless and vulnerable. While experiencing moments of intense, often painful emotion, it is not uncommon to look for ways to regain control or means to affect the outcome of an event. In the bargaining stage of grief, people often find themselves thinking (or saying) a lot of “what if” or “if only” statements. It is also common for religious individuals to try and make a deal with God or a higher power in return for healing or relief from their grief and pain.


Depression is often considered a quiet stage of grief. In the early stages of loss, emotions are running high, and people are often attempting to stay ahead of them. By the time one reaches this stage, they may be better able to come to grips with their emotions and work through them more healthily.


Acceptance doesn’t mean you have moved passed the grief or loss. However, it does mean that the loss has been accepted, and the path to understanding how it impacts life has been found. This doesn’t mean you are “over it” or “forgotten it.” Acceptance is a way to see that there are going to be more good days ahead than bad. There will still be bad, but that’s ok.

Uncomplicated Grief

There are different types of grief people may experience. Uncomplicated grief (or normal grief) is the natural emotion we all experience when a dramatic or unpleasant situation arises. Going through the above grieving process is how people process and come to terms with this loss. Uncomplicated grief is not harmful; it is a healthy response to a traumatic or stressful situation.

Symptoms of uncomplicated grief often include:

  • Longing for a lost relationship
  • Wishing for a person who has passed away
  • Preoccupation with loss, sadness, and depression
  • Difficulty accepting the changes that have occurred
  • Agitation, anxiety, and irritability

While these symptoms are excruciating, people learn to accept them and come to terms with their loss. Although the memory of a loved one or relationship will never be forgotten, bereaved individuals discover that they have other people and goals in life to pay attention to. After a period of emotional work and spiritual growth, people with uncomplicated grief recover.

Complicated Grief

A significant percentage, sometimes as high as twenty-five percent of those struggling with grief, develop complicated grief. In these cases, as opposed to experiencing an improvement in grief-related emotions, the symptoms worsen. People with complicated grief are also more likely to develop addictions. Those who struggle with complicated grief do not and are not able to process their grief, and therefore they are unable to let go of the memory or event that is resulting in their grief. Instead, they keep the memories alive by focusing on them and feeding the resulting emotions through adverse coping mechanisms. The difficulties one experiences associated with complicated grief frequently lead to further challenges related to drugs and alcohol.

Coping Through the Use of Substances

For people recovering from addiction or experiencing overwhelming emotions related to a traumatic event, the idea of coping without substances is foreign. Many of these individuals are unable to handle the painful emotions that arise once the substances in their system wear off. Over time, they have learned to numb their feelings with “feel good” chemicals such as alcohol or drugs. While having a couple of drinks to “numb the pain” doesn’t seem to be an issue at first, unfortunately, it often leads to addiction as numbing the pain becomes the only way to manage emotions. When grief is suppressed through substances, grief does not improve; it only gets worse.

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How Addiction Relates to Grief

People who are experiencing grief, whether uncomplicated or complicated, are particularly vulnerable to addiction. Also, people who struggle with addiction before a grief triggering event are more likely to cling to grief-related emotions until it (potentially) leads to a mental health disorder.

Self-medicating grief is, unfortunately, an all too common problem among addicts and non-addicts alike. When emotions become too overwhelming to handle, it is not unheard of for someone to reach for a drink or something else to assist in keeping emotions at bay. Unfortunately, this leads to a further downward spiral. When simple (or uncomplicated grief) evolves into complicated grief, it becomes a chronic and debilitating mental health condition that requires intensive therapy at a treatment center like The Hills in Los Angeles where both the addiction and co-occurring mental health disorder can be addressed.

Grief is painful. Grief can be toxic. Experiencing the difficult and painful emotions that arise from grief often spurs people to gravitate towards any means possible to relieve suffering. Finding the strength to quit drugs or alcohol and defeat addiction takes work. However, with the proper treatment and a strong desire to commit to sobriety, recovery is possible even in the wake of grief.

If you or a loved one are dealing with a substance abuse issue that you suspect is related to or arising out of grief, you need to seek help for yourself or your loved one at a center equipped to treat dual diagnosis. A dual diagnosis treatment center capable of treating addiction and grief will offer the best chance at a full recovery from both co-occurring disorders. At The Hills, we offer substance abuse treatment programs and addiction treatment programs individually designed to meet these needs. Whether you (or your loved one) are predisposed to addiction or whether grief led to the addiction, treating both the substance abuse disorder and the mental health issues that arise from grief is critical to achieving sobriety and maintaining recovery.

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