When grief hits, it can create upheaval in our daily routine and potentially lead to mental health issues. When someone is in addiction recovery, grief can threaten sobriety. The temptation to return to drugs or alcohol to escape the pain can feel overwhelming.
Grief and Traumatic Events
The pain of grief can emerge when any of the following events occur:
- The death of a loved one
- A divorce or separation
- The loss of a job or home
- Any medical issues that cause an alteration in appearance or physical ability
- Any life-altering event that drastically changes day-to-day activity
Today, even something like the COVID-19 global pandemic can bring on feelings of grief over lost social connections, the inability to attend family events (including funerals, weddings, and births), and the general loss of freedom and sense of safety.
General Stages of Grief
Whatever the situation may be, grief is a powerful emotional response that cycles through our bodies, minds, and hearts. There are five general stages of grief that people can pass through, skip over, or jump back and forth between:
Denial is often an initial response to grief. Someone in denial behaves as if the tragic event never happened. This is a normal response and shouldn’t be considered inappropriate or alarming unless it shows no signs of ending. As a natural defense mechanism, denial allows the individual experiencing the grief more time to process the trauma.
Just as denial is a defense mechanism, anger is a masking mechanism that helps the individual feel more powerful in the face of overwhelming, complex emotions. Many people may lash out at partners, bosses, close family and friends, or even inanimate objects while emerging from denial. As frightening as these outbursts of anger may be, they are also normal and an integral part of the grieving process.
It may seem absurd to try to bargain with a higher power or with other people to attempt to feel good again, but many people engage in if-only or promise-like statements and thinking. This may involve asking God or a religious figure to heal their pain in exchange for something or a return to the past. In the case of estrangement or break-up, it may also include going to extremes to win a person back.
While the previous stages of denial, anger, and bargaining involve a lot of emotional and mental activity on the part of the individual, the stage of depression can look and feel inactive and starkly permanent. Rest assured, depression is not a forever stage but a normal progression to the last phase of grief. This stage is fertile ground for therapy or other forms of mental health counseling.
When people arrive at this final stage, peace isn’t always the result. Unfortunately, the pain of loss may never fully disappear. However, this final stage allows for hope and joy to be experienced frequently or alongside pain.
Neuroscience, Addiction, and Grief
Research in neuroscience reveals a strong connection between addiction and grief. Just like we form strong attachments to substances, we also form similar attachments to people, places, things, and certain activities. This is why loss can be so devastating.
For example, when we fall in love with a person, we experience feelings of arousal and euphoria. We think of that person frequently. Substance dependence works in much the same way. When we begin to use and abuse substances, they take on a lover’s role in our neural pathways.
This has several consequences in recovery. When we lose the ability to use, we often find ourselves grieving the lifestyle of addiction and the substance itself. This can throw us into denial, anger, bargaining behavior, and depression. This is completely normal.
In the same vein, substance dependence can be exacerbated when grief comes into play.
Let’s take the example of someone recently divorced. The desperation and pain that loss may cause can deepen that person’s substance dependence or push them into addiction. In recovery, they must deal with dual issues simultaneously: the original loss and the addiction.
We Are Here To Help
At Great Oaks, our goal is not just to support and guide you to sobriety, but also to offer you holistic help, hope, and healing. We achieve this through in-depth individual counseling and trauma therapy. Through these two avenues, we can work with you to develop a personalized plan that will equip you to manage the pain and stress of loss.