Addicted to Grief?

When time doesn’t heal, the brain’s reward system may be playing a role

When Anne Schomaker lost her husband in 2002, she did everything you’re supposed to do to heal from grief. She went to therapy, she volunteered, she traveled, she took up new hobbies, and she dated. To the outside world, she looked like she was moving on. To the outside world, it looked like she was healing the “right” way. But inside, she was frozen in mourning, unable to move forward emotionally. Nine years after the death of her husband, nightmares still haunted her in her sleep and she avoided reminders that would push her further into despair, such as the arias from the operas they had enjoyed. “I wasn’t really doing well. I had terrible pangs of sadness and despondency. I was missing my husband so badly. The pain just didn’t go away.”

Complicated bereavement is a disruption of the normal grieving process after a loss. While the loss of a loved one can be expected to be deeply painful and elicit emotional distress long after the loss has occurred, the symptoms of grief usually dissipate over time. Sometimes, however, healing does not occur. Instead, you become locked in a state of ongoing mourning; the emotional wound of your loss remains wide open and you are unable to move on. You may be preoccupied with constant thoughts of your loved one, experience intense longing, and be overwhelmed with feelings of sorrow, numbness, or anger. You may feel intense loneliness, even when you are surrounded by others, and may go out of your way to avoid reminders of the person you have lost. Or you may do the opposite—you may surround yourself with objects that make you feel close to your loved one, continuously return to the places that elicit memories of your time together, and live as if you are constantly waiting for their return. You are especially likely to experience complicated bereavement if you lost a loved one suddenly and unexpectedly, without the opportunity to emotionally prepare yourself for their death.

Many people with complicated bereavement are encouraged by well-meaning friends and family to move on, and you may feel that your emotional state is nothing more than a personal shortcoming. You’re told that you’re not grieving the right way. However, research indicates that complicated grief is actually a complex psychological illness with a neurological basis. A study by Mary-Frances O’Connor, published in NeuroImage, examined the effect of grief on brain function via functional magnetic resonance imaging. When people with complicated bereavement were shown pictures of their loved ones, “the nucleus accumbens – the part of the brain associated with rewards or longing – lighted up.” Those who experienced “normal patterns of grieving” exhibited markedly less nucleus accumbens activity.

This area of the brain is also associated with the longing for alcohol and drugs, suggesting that memories of loved ones may actually have an addictive effect on those with complicated bereavement, providing a new understanding of why you are unable to move beyond acute grief. As Dr. O’Connor says, “It’s as if the brain were saying, ‘Yes I’m anticipating seeing this person’ and yet ‘I am not getting to see this person.’ The mismatch is very painful.” Recognizing the neurological underpinnings of complicated bereavement may help researchers and clinicians develop more effective treatment protocols. More importantly, it may help you better understand your experience and reduce the feelings of self-blame and shame you may feel.

Unfortunately, the addictive qualities of your memories may also lead you to develop other addictions. In your attempt to cope with the overwhelming pain of your loss, you may have turned to drugs or alcohol or even food, compounding your emotional distress and presenting new dangers to your well-being. While using substances to escape psychological suffering is common among people experiencing grief, people with complicated bereavement are particularly vulnerable to developing substance addiction issues as they seek to soothe themselves from severe and ongoing mourning. However, any relief you find is only temporary and once the effects of the alcohol or drugs wear off, you’re back where you started or even worse off, as the effects of the substances themselves exacerbate your distress. The resulting cycle of grief and addiction can have serious implications for your ability to function, your physical health, and your fragile psychological state.

If you are suffering from complicated bereavement and a co-occurring substance addiction, healing is within reach. However, effective treatment requires specialized care designed around your unique needs to address the full scope of your emotional and behavioral health issues. In practice, this means that both your grief and addiction must be treated simultaneously to ensure that you process your state of bereavement while attending to the physical and psychological effects of your substance use.

Through comprehensive clinical care, you can develop the skills you need to move forward with your grieving process, cope with your pain in healthy, productive ways, and regain your sense of joy and possibility. Meanwhile, you will learn how to gain control over your addictive drive toward harmful substances as well as safely exploring the complex relationship between your use and your grief to give you a complete picture of your psychological state within an environment of hope and support.

The goal of treatment is never to minimize the loss of your loved one, but to discover ways of expressing, understanding, and coping with that loss in ways that are nourishing, revitalizing, and restorative. With the right therapies delivered with compassion and respect, you can begin the process of meaningful recovery to reawaken your spirit and enhance your quality of life.

 

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Why Men Hurt More Than Women After Breakups

One major reason why men hurt more than women after breakups: men always just want to suck things up.

The end of a relationship is never fair to anyone. Men hurt, women hurt when the familiar feeling of happiness is suddenly snatched from them due to a breakup. Even when the breakup is expected, the grieving process often still plays out.

A British study has claimed that men suffer more long-lasting pain from breakups than women. The question that naturally follows this is: why is this so? How and why are men hurting more when it is they who usually seem to move on from breakups faster and more painlessly?

According to an article published in The Independent Ireland in 2017, it is not so controversial to say that men struggle more after a breakup than women do because “emotionally, [men] often react badly to major life upheavals. Moreover, [men’s] methods for dealing with changed circumstances are not always helpful.”

Women handle breakups differently from how men do it [Credit - Shutterstock]

Women handle breakups differently from how men do it. A 2015 survey by Men’s Health magazine backs up this statement. Conductors of the survey found out that going to the pub was named the best way to “get over” a split according to while one-third of those polled said the jilted party would be better off if he acts unbothered by the whole thing.

Right there, is one of the reasons why men suffer – the unwillingness to face what happened and come to terms with the reality of it.

Unlike women, males grew up with the 'men don't cry' attitude. [Credit - CanStock]
Unlike women, males grew up with the ‘men don’t cry’ attitude.

“Males grew up with the ‘men don’t cry’ attitude and while men may deal with things differently, it doesn’t mean they don’t feel the same pain and the same hurt as women,” says Elaine Hanlon, a counselor, and psychotherapist based in Dublin. “So for generations, men have learned to suppress this pain and hurt and ‘be a man’ which doesn’t allow much space for vulnerability.”

On the other hand, women are typically more comfortable finding a shoulder to cry on and letting it all out.

“Women are often less dependent on their significant other for emotional support – they typically have a wider circle of friends and will confide to family in a way most men wouldn’t countenance,” Hanlon says.

That kinda explains why they come to grips with reality and find the real strength to genuinely close a chapter a move on to the next quicker.

Women break up with men more than it happens the other way round. Another explanation for why men are hurt by breakups more [Credit - Shutterstock]
Women break up with men more than it happens the other way round. Another explanation for why men are hurt by breakups more.

Another reason why women don’t suffer as much as men after a breakup is because they do the breaking up more times than men.

“Studies show that more women than men are the initiators of a marriage break up today,” Hanlon adds.

What this means is that women have more time to start processing the pain ahead. They begin to prepare early for the outcomes of splitting up from a partner. By the time they are done with that phase, the man may just be beginning his.

For men, therefore, it is important to begin to deal with breakups in more expressive, healthier ways as opposed to the ‘suck-it-all-up’ technique that is being used from way back.

 

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Love is like Cocaine: The Remarkable, Terrifying Neuroscience of Romance – Part 4

Yes, you really are addicted to love.

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:

  1. You have obsessive thoughts about aspects of the lost relationship or the person you were with.
  2. You spend a significant amount of time every day or almost every day, thinking about your lost relationship or the person you were with.
  3. You have intense emotional pain, sorrow, pangs, or yearnings related to the lost relationship.
  4. You avoid reminders of the loss, because you know that reminders will cause you pain or make you feel uncomfortable.
  5. You have problems accepting the loss of the relationship.
  6. You have frequent dreams that relate to your lost relationship.
  7. You frequently suffer from deep sadness, depression, or anxiety because of the loss.
  8. You are angry or feel a deep sense of injustice in relation to the lost relationship.
  9. You have difficulties trusting others since the relationship ended.
  10. The loss of the relationship makes it difficult for you to find pleasure in social and routine activities.
  11. 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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