Nearly every person who dies leaves behind loved ones who must face grief. No two people grieve exactly the same way. For some, the pain of loss is manageable. Others find it difficult to cope and may choose to self-medicate with alcohol and other substances. Read on to learn about the connection between grief and alcohol and the problems drinking to numb grief can cause.
Grief and Alcohol: What’s the Link?
For people who are grieving, alcohol may provide a temporary solution to the pain. Legendary baseball player Mickey Mantle provides a powerful example of the connection between alcohol and grief. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Mantle bonded with his father over baseball. When he was 19, his years of practice earned him a spot on the New York Yankees. The pride and excitement he felt were quashed a year later when his father died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Before he died, Mantle wrote in detail about his struggles with alcoholism in Sports Illustrated. He revealed that his drinking started as a way to avoid the painful memories of his father. After every triumph on the field, he’d think about how his father wasn’t there to see it. Drinking stopped those thoughts and allowed him to escape, but they’d return when he was sober. This caused him to repeatedly turn to alcohol and drink an increasing amount over time.
Mantle described how his grief and alcohol use began to shape his life. He became friends with people who were heavy drinkers. Because of his competitive spirit, he’d try to outdo others in bars. This led to reckless behavior and times when he drank so much he couldn’t remember what he’d done.
His relationships with people outside his circle of drinking buddies began to suffer. Rather than bringing him to his senses, the loss of these important individuals only spurred him to drink more. Forty-two years of alcohol abuse also took a toll on Mantle’s health. In 1995, he died from liver cancer at the age of 63. Experts believe liver damage due to drinking played a role in the disease.
Although Mantle’s story is tragic, it does provide some hope. In 1993, he sought treatment at the Betty Ford Center, where he was encouraged to explore his reasons for drinking. Gaining self-awareness about the connection between his grief and alcohol use opened his eyes. Following treatment, he managed to quit drinking and had a chance to rebuild damaged relationships before he died.
Does Alcohol Numb Pain?
Grief can cause many mental and emotional symptoms, such as:
- Problems concentrating
- Over sensitiveness
Working through grief is a difficult process, and it’s natural to want to avoid things that are painful. Drinking alcohol may numb the pain. One study revealed that 88% of people who find it difficult to stop drinking reported that alcohol helped them relax. Additionally, 30% said alcohol helped them forget their problems.
The reason alcohol numbs pain comes down to brain chemistry. When you drink, levels of GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) increase. This brain chemical calms the mind and body. In addition, alcohol boosts dopamine levels, activating the pleasure center of the brain. Once the alcohol wears off, levels of both chemicals plummet.
The problem with drinking to numb grief is that you only get temporary relief from the pain. The underlying emotions don’t really disappear after a few sips; they’ll return once you’re sober.
The Importance of Grieving
Grief is a natural reaction to losing a loved one or facing another difficult life change. Although dealing with its physical, mental and emotional symptoms is painful, grief is necessary. By working through grief, you can ultimately accept the loss. Although you never stop missing your loved one, you learn to adjust to life without them. If you don’t fully grieve, you may never make this adjustment.
Some healthy ways to deal with grief instead of numbing it include:
- Accepting support from others around you
- Exercising regularly
- Talking about your loved one with friends, family or a professional therapist
- Keeping a journal
- Reading books about grief and loss
- Allowing yourself to cry when you feel sad and celebrate when you feel happy
- Carrying or wearing something that reminds you of your loved one
- Joining an in-person or online support group
- Practicing yoga or meditation
- Gardening or planting something in memory of your loved one
The Risks of Drinking to Numb Grief
Entering the cycle of experiencing symptoms of grief and alcohol use carries risks. For one, drinking to numb grief keeps you from working through it. Grief is an active process. Most people find the emotions it causes don’t go away without work. You may prolong grief by trying to escape it rather than facing it.
Alcohol may also amplify some symptoms of grief. A study found that 64% of people dependent on alcohol experienced symptoms of major depression. Some people begin drinking to deal with depression. However, experts believe drinking can also cause you to feel depressed. As depression is a common symptom of grieving, alcohol could worsen symptoms.
Drinking may also lead to an increase in another symptom of grief: anxiety. While drinking, you may feel less anxious due to elevations of GABA and dopamine. Once you’re sober, the anxiety you feel may be greater. Mickey Mantle shared that drinking eventually caused him to experience panic attacks. This isn’t uncommon among people with alcohol use disorder.
In short, you may find that initially, drinking takes you out of your grief. If you keep drinking, however, you may find your symptoms only intensify over time. This is due to the negative mental effects of frequent alcohol use.
Signs You May Need to Seek Help
When you’re already facing grief, you don’t need the extra stress of worrying about drinking. However, alcohol use disorder can arise due to the cycle of grief and alcohol use.
Research has shown that men are especially at risk for problem drinking due to grief. One project compared men who’d been grieving for two years to men who weren’t grieving. With grief, 29.8% of men were at risk for alcoholism compared to 12.9% without grief.
Some signs you may need to seek help for alcohol use include:
- You frequently drink more or for longer than you planned to
- You’ve tried to cut down on or stop drinking but couldn’t
- You spend much of your time drinking
- The after-effects of drinking are interfering with your daily life
- You experience frequent strong cravings to drink
- Drinking has made it hard for you to work or attend school
- Drinking has strained or caused you to lose relationships
- You’ve given up hobbies or activities because of drinking
- You’ve engaged in risky behaviors while drinking
- You’re noticing the need to drink more and more to numb the pain
If any of the above applies to you, help is just a phone call away. Contact us today at (833) 596-3502. Our team of compassionate counselors is available 24/7 to listen and discuss the next steps. Get on the road to recovery from grief and alcohol use today.