In 2020, millions of people in the United States and across the world met an incalculable wave of loss due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Unexpected hardships have materialized due to this crisis—including a staggering rise in drug overdose deaths and an urgent need for drug and alcohol addiction treatment.
Coping with the grief that can follow the loss of a loved one to addiction, sickness, or another unexpected incident isn’t taught. It can be difficult for many people to talk about it.
Grief is a natural response to personal loss that can be accompanied by physical symptoms such as fatigue, a weakened immune system, and insomnia—as well as emotional and mental distress.
How a person copes with their grief, stemming from losing a loved one, reduced social support, or even changes in employment status—can look different from person to person.
Coping mechanisms, also known as the behaviors or strategies we use in the face of stress, can largely be categorized as supportive or unsupportive related to their ability to support or be a detriment to one’s health and well-being.
A supportive coping mechanism might be talking to a counselor or going on a walk to clear one’s head. Unfortunately, a person’s access to supportive coping strategies, or even the language to describe a coping behavior, can’t always be taken for granted.
For those who are unable to access professional mental health services or who are unable to identify their grief and respond to it in a healthy way, this can lead to the use of an unsupportive coping mechanism—such as heavy drinking or drug misuse.
Grief and addictive behaviors
In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that rates of substance use, thoughts of suicide, and stress were rising among U.S. adults.
Substance abuse is still highly stigmatized. However, it’s evident from rising rates of substance abuse and fatal drug overdoses that ignoring the connection between substance misuse—including heavy drinking—and emotional pain fails to address a serious problem.
Drugs and alcohol are commonly used to self-medicate feelings of depression, overwhelming anxiety, stress, and trauma symptoms. These all have a connection to grief, which—although it can look different from person to person—can affect both physical and mental health.
Research shows that emotional pain and physical pain activate similar brain regions. The study demonstrates at least one potential link between emotional distress and the misuse of painkillers such as opioids, as well as the illicit drug heroin.
Many common drugs of abuse—including alcohol—affect chemicals in the brain that can make a person feel relaxed and happy. For someone who is grieving, this may be like a balm of sorts.
Over time, the use of alcohol or drugs to quell feelings of sadness, guilt, or hopelessness can lead to what’s known as physical dependence and psychological addiction. This can reinforce or motivate a person to continue using more of that drug. Drug use can continue despite the negative consequences this might have on a person’s health, relationships with others, or even their ability to hold a job or pay the bills.
Unfortunately, this can become its own perilous cycle of wanting to stop using these substances. That inability to do so further exacerbates the symptoms that drugs or alcohol initially calmed.
Drinking and using drugs to feel good can offer temporary relief for grief. It can fill a void, offer comfort, provide an escape from reality, and fulfill a desire to feel better.
But ultimately, this will hurt more than it can help. And it’s at that point that a grieving person will need more than what substances can offer. This includes compassion, understanding, and likely some form of professional help.
Alternatives to drugs and alcohol for coping with grief
Drugs and alcohol are unsupportive coping mechanisms for managing grief. Instead of leaning on a drink or a hit to feel good, it may be time to meaningfully consider a more supportive alternative.
What this might look like:
● Talking to a trusted loved one: Alcohol and drugs can sometimes fill a void that the presence of a trusted friend, family member, or other loved one may leave behind. You don’t have to face this alone. Speaking your grief into existence can be a reminder of loss, but it can also be one of the first steps toward healing.
● Finding a grief counselor: Many counselors in the United States specifically treat grief as their practice specialty. Talking to a grief counselor can offer the opportunity to process your experience and the impact it has had on you. They can also provide additional tools for managing symptoms of grief outside of counseling sessions—tools that can help you identify and achieve goals for a future that feels more hopeful and fulfilling.
● Attending a support group: Healing is rarely a process that occurs alone. Support groups can offer the opportunity to be open and honest and to learn from the experiences of others who have experienced similar hardship or loss.
● Seeking social support services: There are many community-based programs, social support services, and resources to help residents in times of need. For many people struggling with loss, substance use, or associated issues, community-based services can provide the wraparound support that may be needed to achieve long-lasting recovery.
What to do if you or a loved one is using substances to cope with grief?
Professional intervention may be recommended if you or someone you care about has been turning to alcohol or drugs to cope with grief.
Not all drinking behaviors or drug use are necessarily indicative of a problem. Many people can and do drink in moderation. Using alcohol or another type of drug to deal with emotional pain or stress can be a sign of substance abuse and may be a precursor to a substance use disorder.
For this, it’s best to consult your general physician or substance use professional. Seeing someone you care about turn to drugs or alcohol to manage grief can be scary, and it’s common to feel angry, confused, and helpless in such a situation.
What’s important to understand first and foremost is: You’re not alone, and there is a path forward out of this darkness. This is just as true for grief as it is a substance use problem.
There is a wide range of professional treatment options for drug and alcohol issues, including free and low-cost options for struggling financially or otherwise socially or economically marginalized people.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a helpful treatment locator and a national helpline for individuals and their families to find treatment options for drug or alcohol abuse.
Mental Health America also offers a directory for finding support groups. This directory features a wide array of in-person and online support group options for individuals struggling with grief, substance abuse, and support groups for family members, spouses, children, and other loved ones affected.
Grief can be all-encompassing. It can create a cloud that blocks everything else—sights, sounds, and any semblance of a path through. Don’t lose hope. With time, support, and treatment, this cloud can clear.