Addicted to Grief
The emotional responses to a thorny breakup can resemble the responses to the death of a loved one. You feel weighed down by the memories, the longing, the wistful tears, the chest pain and the aching throughout the whole body. Or you are so outraged that you are lucky not to have a semi-automatic weapon. Or you are ready to go on a secret mission aimed at reversing the terrible outcome. It’s no coincidence that breakups can resemble the death of a loved one. When a loved one dies, you grieve. But death is not the only trigger of grief. Grief can occur after any kind of loss: the loss of a job, a limb, a breast, a home, a relationship.
According to the Kübler-Ross model of grief, also known as “The Five Stages of Grief,” first introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book,”On Death and Dying,” grief involves five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. After the loss of a loved one, you may first deny that the person is gone, simply refuse to believe it. Once the truth dawns on you, you may feel outraged and attempt to convince the beloved to come back or beg God or the universe’s spirits to reverse their decision. Once you realize things are not going to change, sadness sets in. Over time you may finally accept what happened. These stages need not occur in this order, and each stage may occur several times. The different emotions can also overlap. You may be angry and in a bargaining mode at the same time, or deny what happened and still feel sad. Philosopher Shelley Tremain captured the complexity of grief well when she wrote on her Facebook site, “Today would have been my father’s eighty-first birthday. Some days, I think time is on my side, that it’s getting easier to live with losing him. Then, it happens. Sometimes, it’s a figure of speech he was fond of, at other times, I am shaving him, or I look in the mirror and see the features of my face that are his, or we are sitting together holding hands. Just sitting there.”
Sometimes it is nearly impossible to let go of grief. When you continue to grieve a loss for a very long time, your condition is called “complicated (or pathological) grief.” The love story of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert is a heartbreakingly beautiful illustration of complicated grief. Alexandrina Victoria was eighteen when she became Queen of England. Her Uncle, King William IV, had no surviving legitimate children. So Victoria became his heir when he died in 1837. When Prince Albert, her first cousin, visited London in 1839, Victoria immediately fell in love with him. Initially Albert had doubts about the relationship, but he eventually fell in love with her too. The couple got married in February 1840. During the next eighteen years Queen Victoria gave birth to nine children. She loved Albert deeply. Albert was not only a dutiful husband and the father of Victoria’s children, he was also Victoria’s political and diplomatic advisor. For twenty-one years they lived happily together. But the bliss came crashing to a halt when Prince Albert died of typhoid at Windsor on December 14, 1861.
Albert’s death completely destroyed Victoria emotionally. She was overwhelmed by grief and refused to show her face in public for the next three years. People began to question her competence, and many attempted to assassinate her. Victoria finally appeared in public but she refused to wear anything but black and mourned her Prince Albert until her own death in 1901. Victoria’s forty-year-long state of mourning earned her the nickname “The Widow of Windsor.” She never again became the happy and cheerful woman she had been when Albert was alive. In preparation for her own death she asked for two items to be in her coffin: one of Albert’s dressing gowns and a lock of his hair.
Complicated grief is so severe that psychiatrists now consider it for inclusion in the psychiatric manual for diagnosing mental disorders. If you have complicated grief, you have been grieving for six months or more. You furthermore satisfy at least five of the following criteria:
- You have obsessive thoughts about aspects of the lost relationship or the person you were with.
- You spend a significant amount of time every day or almost every day, thinking about your lost relationship or the person you were with.
- You have intense emotional pain, sorrow, pangs, or yearnings related to the lost relationship.
- You avoid reminders of the loss, because you know that reminders will cause you pain or make you feel uncomfortable.
- You have problems accepting the loss of the relationship.
- You have frequent dreams that relate to your lost relationship.
- You frequently suffer from deep sadness, depression, or anxiety because of the loss.
- You are angry or feel a deep sense of injustice in relation to the lost relationship.
- You have difficulties trusting others since the relationship ended.
- The loss of the relationship makes it difficult for you to find pleasure in social and routine activities.
- Your symptoms make it difficult for you to function optimally on your job, as a parent or in a new relationship.
Complicated grief is emotionally and chemically similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, some psychiatrists argue that there is no need to include complicated grief as a separate psychological condition. They are variations on the very same disorder, they say. Posttraumatic stress disorder can occur as the result of any traumatic event. The most common traumatic events discussed in the literature on posttraumatic stress are events of war, terrorist attacks, brutal physical and sexual assaults, and traffic accidents. It is not commonly noted that unexpected breakups and other traumatic relationship events can also lead to posttraumatic stress.
Posttraumatic stress disorder is a condition in which you keep reliving the traumatic event— for example, the breakup—avoiding situations that are similar to the one that led to the trauma. You furthermore have difficulties sleeping, you feel angry, you have difficulties focusing, and you suffer from anxiety. To be a clinical case of posttraumatic stress disorder, the symptoms must last more than a month and lead to difficulties functioning socially, on the job, or in other areas of life. Posttraumatic stress disorder is more likely to occur if the adrenaline surge at the time of the event was very intense.
A study published in the May 2008 issue of Neuroimage suggests that complicated grief sometimes occurs because a normal grieving process turns into an addiction. Led by neuroscientist Mary-Frances O’Connor, the team looked at images of the brains of people who satisfied the criteria for complicated grief and people who weren’t grieving and found significantly more activity in the nucleus accumbens of the people with complicated grief. Activity in the nucleus accumbens is associated with addiction.
It may seem strange that you could actually become addicted to emotional pain and a longing for a person who is no longer with you. The researchers suggest that your yearning and sadness may give you some type of pleasure or satisfaction.
Perhaps the turmoil of emotions does really provide some kind of gratification. Perhaps this emotional overflow is addictive. But it is also possible that the increased activity in the nucleus accumbens signifies increased dopamine levels of the sort found in certain anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The classical case of this disorder is one in which the afflicted is obsessed with thoughts of disease and germs and compulsively washes his or her hands after being near other people or anything that could possibly carry microbes. This disorder is associated with low levels of the mood-enhancing chemical serotonin and fluctuating levels of the motivator chemical dopamine. The low levels of serotonin cause anxiety that involves obsessive, jazzy thinking and the dopamine “reward” motivates the afflicted person to behave in compulsive ways.
As people ruminate obsessively over the events leading up to the loss in complicated grief, the condition may turn out to be similar in this respect to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Low levels of serotonin may trigger obsessive thinking, crippling anxiety, and a visceral yearning for the absent person or the irretrievable relationship. The dopamine response elicited by this kind of obsessive thinking and longing may motivate the grief-stricken person to engage in begging and bargaining and it could also ignite anger fits and a ferocious denial of the loss of the relationship.
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