The Connection Between Grief and Addiction

Grief is a natural, expected emotional reaction to loss. It is painful and can be overwhelming. Many people associate grief with the death of a loved one, close friend, or pet. But the loss of anything important to a person can result in grief. 

Everyone deals with grief differently. While some of these methods are healthy, others are less so. Grief may lead some people to isolate themselves from family or friends or turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate their pain.  

Can Grief Lead to Addiction?

For most people, feelings of grief lessen over time. But for some, the symptoms of grief become more intense and debilitating. Sometimes, the effects of grief can lead to drug or alcohol abuse as the person tries to numb or distract themselves from pain. When a person repeatedly uses substances to escape painful feelings or thoughts, they can quickly develop a substance use disorder.

How Does Addiction Develop?

The brain does not differentiate how it registers pleasure, whether you win money in the lottery, eat a delicious meal, or take a psychoactive drug. It reacts to pleasure by releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, the feel-good hormone. Working with glutamate, another neurotransmitter, dopamine stimulates the brain’s pleasure and reward learning system, which is linked to life-sustaining activities such as eating and sex. Using drugs or drinking alcohol results in an overload of dopamine; the frequent overstimulation of the brain’s pleasure circuit will lead to addiction.  

Repeated substance use changes the brain. The individual goes from liking the substance and how it makes them feel to craving more and more of it. What began as a way to escape the pain of grief turns into a common occurrence. The person may have a false sense of security and feel they can stop anytime.

Over time, the brain becomes so used to the stimulation that the substance feels less pleasurable, and more is required to achieve the same effects as before. As tolerance grows, dependence sets in; by then, the person is no longer taking substances to achieve pleasure but to avoid the pain of withdrawal

Recognizing the Signs of Addiction

Recognizing the signs of addiction can help a person get the treatment they need. The signs of drug or alcohol addiction vary according to the individual, their circumstances, their family history, and the substance they are using. There are general behavioral, psychological, and physical warning signs of substance use disorders. 

Behavioral Signs 

When a person has an addiction to drugs or alcohol, their life often revolves around the substance. They may spend much of their time thinking about, getting, using, and recovering from their substance of choice. Relationship, legal, or financial problems are common. Responsibilities and obligations at home, work, or school are neglected. Regardless of the negative consequences, they continue to use drugs or drink alcohol. They are unable to stop using or drinking even if they want to, and they may resort to risky or criminal behavior in order to access the substance they crave.

Psychological Signs

The individual may appear anxious, paranoid, or fearful without any reason. They may have unexplained changes in their attitude or personality, sudden mood swings, angry outbursts, or increased irritability. At times they may appear tired or spaced out, and lack motivation. At other times they may have unusual nervousness, instability, or increased energy.

Physical Signs

Eye pupils that are smaller or larger than usual, bloodshot eyes, sniffling, a runny nose, slurred speech, and changes in sleep patterns are physical signs of addiction. Changes in appetite, sudden weight gain or loss, and changes in sleep patterns are also common. The person may have tremors and difficulty with coordination. Their physical appearance, personal hygiene, and grooming habits may show signs of deterioration. There may be unusual odors on their clothing, body, or breath. 

We Can Help

If you are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, contact English Mountain Recovery in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee. We can help. Our professional staff will guide you to recovery. Now is the time to take the first step toward living a sober life. 


About the Author: Terry Hurley

Terry Hurley is a retired educational professional and freelance writer with more than fifty years of experience. A former reading specialist and learning center director, Terry loved her years working with children in the educational field. She has written extensively for print and online publications specializing in education and health issues. For the last six years, her writing focus has been on addiction and mental health issues.

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