Grief and Addiction: Grief Therapy in Addiction Recovery

Effective Grief Therapy Treatment at Castle Craig

Heal and Overcome Grief With Our Professional Support and Compassionate Care at Castle Craig

Grief Therapy in Addiction Recovery

Understanding grief and its effects on a person’s well-being is important for good mental health and especially so in recovery from addiction. Grief may be a factor that leads a person into addiction or even a result of a person giving it up. It must be addressed during treatment for addiction disorders, but care must be taken in the timing and nature of grief therapy if successful long-term sobriety is to be achieved.

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Understanding Grief

This powerful human emotion is often a result of traumatic loss of loved ones or loss of some aspect of oneself – ill health or unemployment for example. Unexpected events such as witnessing the killing of a complete stranger can also cause extreme grief and severe long-term effects such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Responses to Grief

Grief can be devastating, and people often respond directly to the pain of grief by screaming, weeping or more extreme forms of self-harm. However, they may also display shock, denial, and disbelief. Longer-term responses may include depression, sadness and refusal to discuss the subject. Some people turn to substance abuse or other forms of addiction as a way of numbing the pain. The DSM 5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association, Fifth Edition) introduces the concept of ‘Complicated Grief’ (CG) as an unusually chronic and intense emotional experience where the usual symptoms are either missing or delayed in presenting.

Grief Is Subjective

Grief is hard to address and may never be fully resolved. People often struggle to process grief because the feeling can be so intense and personal – they want the pain to go away but they don’t know how. They may search for understanding of what has happened, they may try to deaden the pain through self-medication of some kind, or they may try to ‘tough it out’ and not talk about it all.

Other strong emotions, such as fear or anger, often generate extreme physical responses such as running away or fighting, which help a person cope with the feeling itself. When grief appears, there may well be tears (as Shakespeare said: ‘To weep is to make less the pain of grief’), but most people need further help to process their feelings than that.

Statistics on Grief and Addiction

A 2021 survey by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in America found that: ‘Individuals with substance use disorders statistically face high instances of grief, which has been shown to increase the use and risk-seeking behaviour. Loss is a prevalent issue among clients in treatment for substance use disorders.’

A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Research Theory found that individuals who experienced complicated grief were more likely to report higher levels of drug use and cravings than those who had resolved their grief. In the UK the picture is similar: according to a survey conducted by the Sue Ryder organisation in 2020, 46% of adults who have lost someone close to them said that they have not fully processed their grief and experience poor mental health as a result.

grief and addiction

Can Grief Lead to Drug Addiction?

Grief and addiction are intertwined and addicted people are often found to have experienced complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder. Grief is a powerful emotion that can be overwhelming and difficult to manage. In some cases, individuals may use drugs or alcohol as a response to symptoms of depression or anxiety that can arise after a loss.

The death of a loved one, for example, can affect a person’s sense of identity, purpose, and connection to others, leading to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and despair – they may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to numb or escape from the pain. Once substance use becomes a trusted coping mechanism, then over time, this reliance can turn into addiction as the brain chemistry changes, and they become physically and psychologically dependent on the substance.

The Five Stages of Grief

The idea of grief as a process of five stages was first developed by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book ‘On Death and Dying’. The stages are not linear and may happen in any order or some may not happen at all. Nevertheless, these stages are recognised in some form or other in nearly all cases of complicated grief. Each stage involves emotional turmoil and highlights the need for grief situations to be handled as carefully as possible:

  • Denial

Shock and surprise at first learning bad news may at first be too much for the brain. This can trigger numbness and denial which enables a person sometimes to carry on for a while as if nothing has happened. Understanding that an event has happened may not coincide with a full belief in the fact because the brain wants protection from the pain that would cause. Such denial is usually only temporary.

  • Anger

Anger is often a first response to a shock and may focus on the unfairness of the event, the perceived failure of the victim or oneself to stop it from happening, or the absence of divine intervention.

  • Bargaining

Part of the need for us to feel better shows itself in attempts to come to terms with the hard fact that a loss has occurred. We may try to make sense of our past actions of ourselves and others and perhaps turn to God for answers that might make us feel happier.

  • Depression

Loss and grief can turn into a constant feeling of sadness and perhaps self-blaming that can make people question their sense of self-worth and the meaning of life itself.

  • Acceptance

Although the passage of time may help the healing process, there is no guarantee that acceptance will ever be complete – for many people, an easing of the pain and an ability to get on with life despite the loss is the best they can achieve.

The Effects of Drug Use on Grief

Drugs may sometimes provide some temporary relief, for example in helping people to sleep and relax during the initial grieving process or they might even mitigate in a positive way the emotions of sadness, anxiety and anger that often follow the first shock of a loss. However, the regular use of drugs or alcohol to self-medicate the symptoms of grief can be particularly dangerous, as they can interfere with the natural grieving process and prevent individuals from processing their emotions in a healthy way. If left untreated because of self-medication, grief issues themselves can lead to a range of negative consequences, including health problems and relationship difficulties with loved ones.

When Is Counselling Necessary for Grief Issues?

If grief is causing a person to experience symptoms of depression, such as persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed, feelings of worthlessness, and difficulty sleeping or eating, these may be signs of clinical depression that need to be addressed without delay. Additionally, if an individual is struggling to manage their grief and is experiencing symptoms of anxiety, such as excessive worry, racing thoughts, and physical symptoms such as sweating, heart palpitations, and trembling, counselling may be necessary. Where grief is compounded by substance abuse there is always a potential for mental health to deteriorate significantly and professional help should be sought as soon as possible.

It is important to note that grief is a highly individualised process, and what may be necessary for one person may not be necessary for another. If you or someone you know is struggling with grief, it may be helpful to speak with a mental health professional to determine the most appropriate course of action.

Treatments for Bereavement and Other Types of Grief

Grief therapy is a type of counselling that helps people cope with the emotional, psychological, and behavioural effects of grief and loss. It is a supportive and healing process that focuses on helping individuals express their feelings, thoughts, and concerns related to the loss of a loved one, a significant relationship, a job, or any other significant life change. The therapy aims to assist individuals to understand the stages of grief and to develop healthy coping mechanisms for managing their emotions and general functioning. This may involve individual or group therapy with a variety of techniques, such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and mindfulness-based interventions.

Advantages of Therapy for Grief Issues

  1. Grief therapy provides a safe and supportive environment for individuals to process their grief and feelings of loss. It can help in a variety of ways:
  2. Understanding and coping with the emotional, physical, and psychological effects of grief, which can include depression, anxiety, and even physical illness.
  3. Navigating the stages of grief and finding ways to adjust to life after loss.
  4. Providing a sense of validation and normalisation of grief, helping individuals realise that what they are feeling is a natural part of the grieving process.
  5. Providing coping strategies and tools for managing grief and related emotions, such as stress, anger, and guilt.
  6. Helping people identify and address any unresolved issues or conflicts related to the loss, can hinder the grieving process.
  7. Providing an opportunity for people to express their thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental and compassionate setting, can be healing in itself.

Helping people find meaning and purpose in their lives after loss and facilitating personal growth and transformation.

Grief and Addiction Therapy at Castle Craig

We see many people in treatment who arrive with unresolved grief issues. We consider that these should always be treated at the same time if recovery is to be long-lasting. Following assessment, each person’s treatment plan will address grief issues as part of their overall treatment programme.

The therapeutic community that we provide is designed to help each person feel safe and supported while they work through their issues using a variety of techniques – group therapy, individual counselling and specialist grief counselling. This approach of caring for all of a person’s emotional needs is carried through into their aftercare plan when they leave treatment because we recognise that grief can be a long-term consideration for many.

If you are struggling with addiction of any kind and perhaps have grief issues too, please don’t hesitate to contact us – we are always ready to listen and discuss the best way forward for you.

Our telephone line is open 24/7. Call us on 0808 271 7500 and start your journey today.


How Can I Cope With Grief in Sobriety?

Finding healthy ways to manage grief helps to prevent addiction or relapse. Sensible plans for a gradual recovery from the first intensity of grief might include:

  1. Being sure to talk about your feelings to others, perhaps by joining a support group
  2. Practise normal self-care such as healthy eating, sleeping and exercise
  3. Keep busy, work on your friendships and try doing new things
  4. Allow yourself time to consider the good things in life that you still have. in sobriety?

How Does Grief Impact Addiction?

Grief can sometimes lead people into addiction because they may learn that substance abuse and other addictive behaviours can numb the pain of loss. When such measures become a habit the mind and body adjusts to them and this can lead to dependence. This type of learned behaviour is dangerous for people in recovery from addiction because it can trigger cravings and relapse situations either from memories of past losses or when a new source of grief emerges.

Can You Be Addicted to Grief?

For some, letting go of grief can be extremely difficult. However much they may wish to let go, some people remain always remain liable to outbursts of grief, even after many years – perhaps triggered by a picture or an event. There is research suggesting that for some people, their brain’s reward system is aroused by pleasant memories of loved ones (for example) to the extent that they seek out such prompts more and more, albeit subconsciously. To this extent, they may be said to be addicted to their grief and unable to move on.

Experts You Can Trust

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