Drugs, Alcohol, and Coping

Grief greatly affects a person’s mental and emotional health, especially when that person is suffering from addiction. It can trigger depression, anxiety, and irrational behavior, as well as substance abuse. People experiencing painful grief often turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to numb feelings of pain and hurt associated with their loss and many individuals enrolled in rehab or sober living programs may find that avoiding drugs and alcohol while grieving is particularly difficult.

On a short-term basis, drugs and alcohol may seem to help silence negative feelings, emotions, and thoughts, but in the long run, using addictive substances to cope with loss can only end in more pain and devastation.

Self-medicating with alcohol and drugs can even exacerbate feelings of hopelessness and depression, as many drugs act as depressants on their own. When coupled with loss, substance abuse carries severe consequences and has the potential to skyrocket into full-blown addiction.

When treating individuals who have experienced loss (especially traumatic loss), drug and alcohol rehab centers and transitional housing programs should address both the addiction and the trauma because both play an important role in the overall wellness of the person.

The Five Stages of Grief

There are five main stages that a person may experience when they deal with loss. Psycom states that although not every person will go through all five or experience them in the same order, most individuals will experience at least one of the following stages. Swiss psychologist K├╝bler-Ross describes these stages in further detail in her book, “On Death and Dying.”

  1. Denial – Many individuals are shocked and confused by their loss or attempt to avoid it entirely by adopting a mindset of denial. In a way, this helps the person survive the initial shock of the loss and cope with it.
  2. Anger – It’s natural to want to blame family members, God, or ask questions like, “Why me?” when faced with loss. Feelings of frustration, irritation, and anxiety can be overwhelming, and the anger can lead to a desire for separation from family and friends.
  3. Bargaining – When experiencing loss, some people may also try to bargain with themselves or with God as they struggle to find meaning in life.
  4. Depression – Overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, isolation, and despair may take over after experiencing loss. Many people find themselves withdrawing from everyday life and the people around them. They may even begin to have suicidal thoughts.
  5. Acceptance – Accepting loss in life is something that comes with time. It is a process of readjusting to a new way of life and it is never immediate. Acceptance will take time and patience.

A person may experience some or all of these stages and still not be able to cope with their grief. When drugs and alcohol become a part of the grieving process for a person in active addiction or recovery, it’s time to enlist the help of professionals at an addiction treatment center or sober living house.

Choosing to Grieve in a Healthy Way

According to Psych Central, healthy grieving and unhealthy grieving are two very different things entirely. There is not a single correct way to grieve, as this process is unique for every person, but there are several unhealthy ways of dealing with loss that can lead to further problems. Unhealthy grieving typically consists of things like:

  • Ignoring feelings of sadness, anger, or anxiety.
  • Isolating yourself.
  • Pretending to be okay even when you’re not.

If you are experiencing loss and you know you are at risk of relying on drugs and alcohol to cope, the Mayo Clinic recommends several things you can do to actively grieve in a healthy way.

  • Acknowledge all your feelings. No one grieves in exactly the same way and you may feel some things that you think are untimely or unacceptable. It’s important that you let yourself experience the loss and feel all those emotions. You may need to share those feelings with a counselor or sober living roommate instead of your loved ones, but every emotion is important to the grieving process.
  • Give yourself time. Just know that healing takes time. It may seem easier to mask your pain and hurt with drugs or alcohol, but in the end, that’s all it does. Those emotions will still be there, and you’ll still need time to process them.
  • Ask for help. Friends, family members, and counselors are great resources for grieving people. Although it is tempting to grieve alone, sharing your loss with others is an essential part of the healing process. Sober homes (also known as halfway houses ) are excellent resources for people in recovery because they provide intensive peer support in a way that other living situations may not.
  • Prioritize self-care. During your time of loss, it’s extremely important to get sleep, eat well, exercise often, and practice good hygiene. Disrespecting your body and your mind with damaging thoughts or drug and alcohol abuse will only intensify feelings of depression and sadness.
  • Lean on your spiritual beliefs. If you believe in a higher power, lean on that during your time of loss. Doing so may help you find meaning and purpose in life, even amid trauma and grief.

Grief and loss are extremely powerful but using drugs and alcohol as a crutch will only mask the pain for a short time. To heal, you must allow yourself to experience the grief fully and process with patience.