Friday, July 18, 2008

Can We Be Addicted to Grief?

Can we become addicted to grief? I think I have gone through times in my life when I enjoyed being unhappy, sought it out. It appears that such behavior has something to do with the brain's reward system.

Some thoughts on this below the article.
Addicted to Grief?
When time doesn't heal, the brain's reward system may be playing a role
By Nicole Branan

Editor's Note: This story will be published in the October/November issue of Scientific American Mind.

Losing a loved one is always painful, but for most people time eventually heals the wounds. For about 10 to 20 percent of the bereaved, however, accepting and getting over a loss remains extremely difficult, even years later. Now researchers have come a step closer to elucidating the neurobiological underpinnings of this condition called complicated grief (CG). A new functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, published online in May in the journal NeuroImage, shows that in CG patients reminders of the deceased activate a brain area associated with reward processing, pleasure and addiction.

A team led by Mary-Frances O’Connor of the University of California, Los Angeles, studied 23 women—11 of whom suffered from CG—who had lost a mother or sister to breast cancer in the past five years. While in the scanner, the women saw pictures and words that reminded them of their loved one. Brain networks associated with social pain became activated in all women, but in the CG patients reminders of the deceased also excited the nucleus accumbens, a forebrain area most commonly associated with reward.

O’Connor believes this continued neural reward activity probably interferes with adaptation to the new situation. “When we see a loved one or reminders of a loved one, we are cued to enjoy that experience,” she says. “But when a loved one dies, our brains have to adapt to the idea that these cues no longer predict this rewarding experience.” Scientists do not yet know why some people adapt better than others do.

O’Connor hopes the findings will lead to new treatment strategies that will “help the brains and minds of CG patients understand that the person is gone.”

OK, let's just for a moment assume to unthinkable -- that this not some symptom of faulty brain wiring, but rather is a learned behavior. People can and do learn to enjoy their role as the victim of loss.

While I don't quite agree with the following statement (I think empathy is incredibly healing, while idiot compassion is not), it presents a useful starting point, a working definition of the victim mentality:
My opinion is that I think empathy triggers our "behavior mirrors". That is if you get empathy from others you start to act the victim role and you start to feel worse because you want to reflect this idea that person has of you as being a HUGE victim. So with every person that feels sorry for you, your victim role is strengthened and with it you throw away any responsibility for your own emotions and behavior. Everything you try to achieve in this victim "mode" is doomed to failure because you have to proof for yourself constantly that you are so much a victim that everything fails and then you have one more thing to feel sorry for yourself about and that strengthens even more the victim inside you.
Empathy is not "feeling sorry for" someone, so that part is just plain wrong. When we adopt the victim mentality, what we have done is develop a "part" that takes on the role as a way to sheild us from our pain, rather than actually feel that pain. The other element tha the author is describing is what happens when we exercise idiot compassion, which Pema Chodron defined as follows:
It refers to something we all do a lot of and call it compassion. In some ways, it's whats called enabling. It's the general tendency to give people what they want because you can't bear to see them suffering. Basically, you're not giving them what they need. You're trying to get away from your feeling of I can't bear to see them suffering. In other words, you're doing it for yourself. You're not really doing it for them.
So allow me to unpack all of this.

When someone is in pain, many of us are not comfortable with that pain after a period of time, so we want the person we care about to move on. However we end up reinforcing the person's sense of status around the grief (or whatever emotion it is) by giving them attention. The added attention triggers the reward centers in the person's brain, just the same way an addictive chemical does.

The person grows accustomed to the attention s/he receives for being "hurt" or "sad." And because they don't want to release or (more imnportantly) face the grief (and lose their status), they accumulate triggers that remind of them they are the victim of pain/grief so as to generate more attention. All of this is unconscious on their part.

Rather than allow the person to be sad and hurt, we want to make them feeling better, so we lavish them with attention, which is idiot compassion. The real motive behind our actions is that we cannot be with their pain either, so we want it to go away for our sake more than theirs.

This may seem like a rather cynical explanation of the persistence of grief, but it's one that exists in the literature. Obviously, since only 10 to 20 percent of people get stuck this way, it doesn't happen to everyone, so why does it happen at all?

1. Some people are naturally addictive, and that includes things (besides drugs and alcohol) like attention, but also to specific feelings.
2. Some people have never learned how to be with and release hard emotions.
3. Some don't have good support (no idiot compassion) when they are grieving.
4. The interference of an actual addiction.

Those are the predominant causes -- and when my father died (I was 13), I had all four of these working against me. I got a bit of idiot compassion, but suffered a complete inability to be with my feelings and release them naturally. And I am a very addictive person.

I quickly discovered that drugs and drink numbed the pain, preferably in some high-octane combination. This made impossible to release the feelings, and it was several years before I got clean and began to work through the feelings that had been buried. Even then, it was a slow, painful process.

My advice? If someone is stuck in grief (of a lost loved one or relationship, or whatever) for more than a year, encourage them to seek therapy, someone to talk with about their pain. Most likely, they haven't ever really faced it, or they have gotten stuck in some form of vicitm mentality.

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