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The Link Between Grief and Addiction

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Grief is the natural response of pain and sadness that accompanies loss.  There is no set timetable for how long grief will last. People will experience grief for as long as it takes them to adjust to the changes in their life that are associated with their loss. This process can last for months or even years.  Grieving individuals often feel numb and removed from daily life. Extreme emotional stress can make some people unable to carry on with regular duties and responsibilities while they are saddled with their sense of loss. Grief may cause anger and frustration, and for some it can lead to anxiety disorders and depression Our natural reaction is to avoid the pain associated with grief, although everyone approaches this differently. Some people change jobs or move away, while others may attempt to cope with the overwhelming pain of their loss by turning to drugs or alcohol.

The Association Between Grief and Addiction

Research shows that some forms of grief increase the risk of developing a substance use disorder. Several studies have shown a relationship between bereavement and hazardous alcohol consumption.1 One study found that men bereaved for two years are more than twice as likely to have an alcohol use disorder as men who are not grieving.2 Other research shows that people suffering from complicated grief (a form of prolonged and unrelenting grief that occurs in approximately 10-20% of bereaved individuals) are particularly vulnerable to developing an addiction as they attempt to rid themselves from their severe and ongoing mourning.  One recent study found that both men and women with major depressive disorder and complicated grief have significantly higher rates of alcohol dependence relative to depressed individuals without complicated grief.3  Interestingly, research investigating the effect of grief on brain function found that complicated grief activates the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain’s reward center that plays an important role in addiction-related behaviors.4 Brain scans taken during the study demonstrated that activation of neural pathways occurred in the area of the brain associated with the longing for alcohol and drugs, suggesting that memories of loved ones may promote addictive behaviors in individuals suffering from complicated grief.

Treatment Options

Carrying the emotional stress and pain from the death of a loved one can be a difficult burden. Loss is a normal part of life and there are healthy ways to deal with this pain. Therapy through a counselor or a support group is usually the preferred treatment for grief, although antidepressants can be prescribed for people suffering from clinical depression or complicated grief.  People struggling with grief and substance abuse will require additional interventions to address their addiction. Residential or outpatient integrated treatment programs can help individuals address substance use disorders and process their grief at the same time.  If you find yourself trying to overcome addiction while also dealing with the effects of grief, please take the first step toward recovery and contact a treatment professional today to learn about the programs that can best meet your specific needs.


  1. Stahl, S.T., & Schulz, R. (2014). Changes in routine health behaviors following late-life bereavement: a systematic review. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 37(4), 736-755.
  2. Pilling, J., Thege, B.K., Demetrovics, Z., & Kopp, M.S. (2012). Alcohol use in the first three years of bereavement: a national representative survey. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 7(3).
  3. Sung, S.C., Dryman, M.T., Marks, E., Shear, M.K., Ghesquiere, A., Fava, M., & Simon, N.M. (2011). Complicated grief among individuals with major depression: prevalence, comorbidity, and associated features. Journal of Affective Disorders, 134(1-3), 453-458.
  4. (O’Connor, M.F., Wellisch, D.K., Stanton, A.L., Eisenberger, N.I., Irwin, M.R., & Lieberman, M.D. (2008). Craving love? Enduring grief activates brain’s reward center. Neuroimage, 42(2), 969-972.
Last Updated on January 2, 2020
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