Is Grief An Addiction?

For my latest book project I have been reading a book called Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher. I have been working on the theory that grief recovery is not very far off from addiction recovery. I know this sounds far fetched, but hear me out.

First off, we need to understand a little about brain chemistry:

  • Elevated levels of dopamine in the brain produce highly focused attention, exhilaration, increased energy, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, pounding heart, anxiety and fear. Sound familiar? During periods of falling in love and again when we lose that love, levels of dopamine in our brains increase.
  • Norepinephrine is a chemical derived from dopamine. It has a similar effect on the brain as dopamine and can “explain why the lover can remember a beloved’s actions and cherished moments spent together. This liquor is associated with increased memory for new stimuli.”
  • Serotonin, meanwhile decreases with rising levels of dopamine and norepinephrine. Low levels of serotonin are often found in people with obsessive compulsive disorder which is why they are often treated with SSRIs, which is basically serotonin. So a person who is grieving (or in love) often has persistent, involuntary, irresistible ruminations about a sweetheart that might be associated with low levels of some type of this chemical.”

In her chapter about losing love, Ms. Fisher talks about the various stages, which (surprise, surprise) include denial/despair, anger and acceptance. We’ve all heard those stages before. She writes,

“…romantic love and abandonment rage are well connected in the brain. And when you think about it, these passions have much in common. They are both associated with bodily and mental arousal; both produce excessive energy. Both drive one to obsessively focus one’s attention on the beloved. Both generate goal-directed behaviours. And both cause yearning, either for union with a sweetheart or for revenge against a jilted loved one.”

OK, we might not want revenge against a jilted loved one, but how many of us out there are angry at some aspect of our loved one’s death? Doctors, buildings, murderers, etc. How many of us focus obsessively (particularly in the early months after loss) on our beloved? Haven’t we all yearned for reunion?

Compare that with The American Society for Addiction Medicine’s definition of addiction:

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in the individual pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors. The addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships. Like other chronic diseases, addiction involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

You could almost be talking about loss with this definition. “Disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” Check. “Cravings (for loved one).” Check. As for “pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviours”? How many of us drink, have overeaten or stopped eating, zoom from place to place, go through a bit of a “wild stage” sexually or even pursue new love, one that might be inappropriate? All of these pursuits alters those brain chemicals in some way, relieving the pain of our loss.

And in fact, Ms. Fisher writes:

“Because romantic love is such a euphoric “high”, because this passion is exceedingly difficult to control, and because it produces cravings, obession, compulsion, distortion of reality, emotions and physical dependence, personality change and loss of self-control, many psychologists regard romantic love as an addiction – a positive addiction when your love is returned, a horribly negative fixation when your love is spurned (or lost?? my words) and you can’t let go.”

With regards to acceptance of the loss, Ms. Fisher goes on to discuss how common depression is when suffering the loss of a loved one.  One thing about depression that I found interesting is her idea that depression can give you insight. “Depressed people make clearer assessments of themselves and others” and “can push a person to accept unhappy facts, make decisions and resolve conflicts that will ultimately promote their survival and capacity to reproduce.”

This jolted me out of my seat when I read it:

“If the beloved breaks off the relationship (or dies?? my words), the lover shows all the common signs of drug withdrawal, including depression, crying spells, anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite (or binge eating), irritability and chronic loneliness. Like all addicts, the lover then goes to unhealthy, humiliating even physically dangerous lengths to produce their narcotic. Lovers relapse the way drug addicts do too. Long after the relationship is over, simple events such as hearing a particular song or revisiting an old haunt can trigger the lover’s craving and initiate compulsive calling or writing to get another “high”: a romantic moment with the beloved…

And so she gives tips for getting over the loss of a beloved:

  • Remove all evidence of the addictive substance – the beloved. Wow. Could it be that my many forays into Arron’s closet to cry were actually feeding my addiction? Keeping his ties? OK, I know that purging all of your lost loved one’s possessions is unreasonable, but it sure has me thinking.
  • Meditate, develop positive mantras.
  • When you can’t stop thinking about them, write down faults and carry them in your pocket. Imagine yourself with a new partner. OK, again, extreme in the case of loss, but again, I can see her point.
  • Stay busy. Distract yourself, call friends, visit neighbours, go somewhere to worship, play cards, memorize poetry. Why does she suggest these things? “because despair of unrequited love is most likely associated with plummeting levels of dopamine.” Keeping busy is a way of maintaining higher levers of dopamine. Perhaps my notion of “zooming” wasn’t so far off the mark after all. I saw it as detrimental, but clearly its a natural phenomenon that allows us to remain so busy we don’t have time to think about our loved one.
  • Exercise. It elevates serotonin and some endorphins, calming substances. “Some psychiatrists believe that exercise can be as effective in healing depression as psychotherapy or antidepressant drugs.” I do think this is true.
  • Sunlight. Get outside. “It stimulates the pineal gland in the brain, which regulates bodily rhythms in ways that often elevate mood.”
  • Avoid sweets or drugs that you know will stress your body and your mind? What?? No chocolate?
  • Smile. “Put on a happy face, even when you cry. The nerves of the facial muscles activate nerve pathways in the brain that can give you feelings of pleasure.”

Applying the 12 step method to recovery:

  • One day at a time
  • If you don’t want to slip, don’t go to slippery places – ie. stay away from the memory inducing places, restaurants, etc.
  • Don’t take the first drink – One memory will lead to more.
  • Think the drink through – don’t romanticize. Remember those crap weekends you had with your loved one along with the good ones.

OK, I know some of these points don’t quite fit with our common belief that you have to do the work of grief. You do actually have to tell your loss story over again and again to whoever will listen, you do have to cry, you do have to reopen those wounds by opening that damned closet, because in the end you can’t just sweep grief under the rug. It will come and find you again, when you least expect it.  That said, the idea that when you get to a certain point in your healing process that perhaps its a good idea to put away your loved one’s things and stop reopening those wounds seems sound.

I’m starting to think we need a 12-step program for grief.

9 Comments

  1. annie November 22, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    I don’t know that everything has to be framed in terms of an addiction.

    Loss is really about change and humans hate change.

    All the advice she gives for “getting over” is stuff I did.
    When my late husband went into the nursing home, I cleaned house. No photos, clothes in the drawers or closets. It hurt too much and I didn’t/don’t see scab picking as a good thing.

    And I kept busy. I constantly imagined my solo future and indulged in fantasies of a new life that was filled with hope and joy and love. I execised. I put on a happy face as often as I could and did all the things really that grief 12 steppers tell you not to do and term “denial”.

    What the author here is suggesting is that we can’t “grieve” our way back to normal
    Cry, feel sad but don’t live there. The whole “lean into the pain” thing is counterproductive. Actively ignoring and fighting are the keys. jmo as always.

  2. Debbie November 22, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    Very interesting. I recognize truths throughout and though I don’t want to think I am addicted to grieving my husband’s death, parts of it make sense. A 12 step program for grief would be very facinating to check out. The hardest concept to me is getting rid of “the stuff”. But I know when I’ve put things away, like his clothes, it did make me feel better. At the same time, the thought of not having his stuff around makes me panic. So complicated… Thanks for talking about this interesting topic.

  3. Crash Course Widow November 23, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    Some interesting ideas, but I don’t really buy into it as an extension or model for grief. Some of it applies, but much of it, no…in my opinion.

    But I find it fascinating to read the different theories, of so-called experts as well as my friends and peers on this crap journey.

    Thanks for sharing, Abby, and I’ll certainly be curious to see or hear about your book proposal or outline someday! I hope all this research gets your creative juices flowing!!

  4. J-in-Wales November 28, 2010 at 6:02 am

    Interesting thoughts, but as the other commenters have said, I don’t think it is about addiction. I think Annie got closest in describing it as fear of change. I have noticed that lately my periods of deepest “wallowing” have been linked to a need to do something to move my life forward. The change is scary, and doing it alone is scarier still. In many ways widowhood is “safe” – I know where I am with my grief. I can wrap myself up in it and avoid things that I need or ought to do, but don’t want to handle. Then when I feel safe enough to come out again, I put on my Big Girl pants and tackle the monster.
    To my mind that is not addiction, simply a survival strategy.

  5. Abby Carter November 29, 2010 at 11:32 am

    I agree with all of you that grief itself is not an addiction, though I was curious to go down that road because I think that many people respond to grief in ways that can eventually become addictive (overeating, drinking, sex, etc.). I guess what really interested me was the research that’s been done on brain chemicals and how similar they are both when you fall in love and when you lose love and how it might relate to grief.

  6. Supa Dupa Fresh December 2, 2010 at 11:32 am

    I am skeptical. No mention of oxytocin? You raise some interesting points though.

    I lost a lot of respect for Helen Fisher when I tried to date from Chemistry.com, where she is the “expert” who designed their matching system. I didn’t find it made much sense for me, and the rest of their service was pretty cruddy too. Perhaps unfair, but there you are.

    Still, some interesting points.

  7. Teresa Luttrell December 9, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Hmm. There’s a lot of good stuff here. My loss is of a son rather than a husband, which may alter things a bit…

    I didn’t put away pictures or anything–I hung up more, if anything–but I did meditate. I found it helped to do some sort of moving meditation, though–to sit still didn’t work. I also worked hard at remembering who Teddy really was, rather than paint him in glowing colors all the time. My son was, at times, a total pain in the ass, as we all can be…About 4 months after Teddy died I started working on turning my house into a b&b, but I didn’t socialize much. When it comes to socializing I think that particular suggestion can be counter-productive for people who are not energized by interaction. Nearly every time I pushed myself to accept invitations to go out I’d have a melt down, fueled, I’m sure, by a combination of social anxiety and grief.

    Exercise was hugely helpful, as was being out in the natural world. Being present to the wind on my skin, for example, could get me out of wallowing better than anything else.

    Chocolate was not optional.

    I did notice, though, that when my grief began to shift there was a huge impulsion to stay in it. Deep grief was comfortable in its discomfort. And there was a feeling that if I allowed myself to be happy again it would be construed by others as my not loving my son ‘enough’.

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