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The Relationship Between Grief and Substance Use in Veterans

As a veteran, you have likely encountered some of the most stressful circumstances possible, witnessing or participating in some of humanity’s most tragic events. Unfortunately, as a result of this service, these individuals often develop mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety disorders, as well as substance use disorders (SUDs). Understanding the relationship between grief and substance use in veterans can help you further understand how to overcome your past.

What Is Grief?

Grief is a natural response to loss. When someone or something we care for passes away, our emotions often include sorrow, anger, guilt, and despair. Grieving does not always have to relate to terms of death. It can also include losing a job, home, a sense of purpose, or part of yourself. For veterans, grief may arise from losing battle comrades, a loss of camaraderie or belonging, or the loss of their life before joining the military.

Grief is an inevitable part of life, yet it can be extremely challenging to cope with for veterans who may have endured multiple losses and traumas during their service. Unfortunately, veterans sometimes turn to alcohol or drugs to manage their grief. This often results in SUD, as substances are used as a form of self-medication.

Grief and Substance Use Disorder

Various studies have demonstrated that more veterans are at increased risk for SUD than the general population. Due to experiencing high rates of trauma and stress while serving our nation, many veterans are forced to manage feelings of grief. Grief can be a difficult emotion to manage for many individuals. To deal with these emotions, many become reliant on substances to help them move past grief. As veterans often deal with a substantial amount of grief throughout their years of service, the potential of SUD coming into play is greatly heightened. 

Grief and substance use is an intricate relationship. While substance use may offer relief to some veterans coping with grief, it also helps to numb out emotions arising from grief. No matter its purpose or intent, substance use can have a serious impact on veterans as well as their loved ones. It is important to understand the negative impact that this form of coping can have on your overall well-being. You may have to redefine your success when dealing with grief.

One of the greatest difficulties associated with treating veterans strugglingruggling with SUD with SUD lies in identifying and treating any underlying issues that contribute to their substance abuse. When grieving is involved, treating its root cause(s) while offering healthy coping mechanisms is necessary. This may require therapy sessions, support groups, or any other forms of assistance that help process grief while developing healthier ways of managing it. These resources can be available to you at Malibu Wellness Ranch to help you further your recovery success.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD is a mental health disorder that commonly occurs among veterans. This disorder may also contribute to SUD. PTSD occurs after experiencing or witnessing traumatic events or ongoing feelings of grief. The symptoms of this disorder may include flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance, and hyperarousal. 

Living with this disorder can be particularly stressful, often leading to isolation, anxiety, and depression. Many veterans with PTSD turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with the symptoms of PTSD. SUD may act as a temporary relief from these symptoms, but overall worsens the severity of the condition. 

Treating Substance Use Disorder

It can be challenging to treat SUD in general, but overcoming grief during your recovery is essential to focus on as well. Various therapeutic methods can be utilized to help overcome grief and SUD, benefiting improvement in each area. While each technique may not be the best for you, you can discuss your options with your team at Malibu Wellness Ranch to determine which approach is best suited for your situation.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be an effective form of treatment for veterans struggling with SUD. This form of therapy involves helping an individual recognize and modify any harmful thoughts or actions which contribute to their substance use. It also can help teach them healthy coping techniques for dealing with grief or other emotions as well as their cravings to use substances.              

Medication-Assisted Treatment

The use of medication is another effective form of treatment for veterans struggling with SUD. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) utilizes medications like methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone to help alleviate symptoms of withdrawal. This treatment can be especially beneficial during the initial stages of recovery. It often provides the most success when it is used with other forms of therapy, as medication should only be used as a temporary assistant rather than a full-time solution.

Moving Forward With Treatment for Grief and Substance Use

The relationship between grief and substance use among veterans is complex and multidimensional. Substance use may serve as a form of self-medication to cope with emotional pain due to grieving, as well as to soothe their overwhelming emotions. Addressing factors that contribute to substance abuse, such as grief, is essential when treating SUD successfully in veterans.


If you are a veteran struggling with grief and substance use, do not hesitate to reach out for help. Seeking support is a sign of strength, not weakness. Grief is a normal feeling that arises through the journey of recovery and throughout the cycle of addiction. Learn how to address your grief and understand the relationship that grief can play in the cycle of addiction. Overcoming this emotion can help assist you in maintaining sobriety and set you up for long-term success. Substance use can quickly become a way to cover up grief but can lead to other problems. To learn more about the relationship between grief and substance use, reach out to Malibu Wellness Ranch at (800) 862-5428.