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Bereavement and the Psychology of Addiction

Bereavement over the loss of a loved one is one of the most difficult emotions one can face. Grief takes many forms, and no two stories or responses to such a profound loss are exactly the same. It can be difficult even for researchers to agree on what constitutes a “normal” grief response. Much less for an individual in the middle of mourning to know whether their feelings qualify as normal or excessive.

One of the hallmark signs of an unhealthy grief response is when individuals resort to dangerous behaviors. For example, substance abuse, in order to numb, forget, or avoid coping with feelings of loss is a negative sign. Unfortunately, such behavior is not uncommon.1 Research into what is referred to as complicated grief, or protracted and extreme responses to loss, may begin to shed some light on its relationship to addictive psychology and how individuals may learn to live with loss in healthier ways.

Grief and the Addictive Brain

A 2015 study examined the brain’s reaction to complicated grief. One proposed difference between non-complicated grief and complicated grief, is an elevation in pain-related activity in the brain. A more surprising finding occurred when individuals in the study were shown cues of lost loved ones. Individuals with complicated grief experienced an activation of the brain’s reward center when seeing a cue of a deceased loved one, while those with non-complicated grief did not.2

The authors proposed that this “may help to explain why it is hard to resist engaging in pleasurable reveries about the deceased even though [this] may prevent those with complicated grief from adjusting to the realities of the present”. Further, some have proposed that the kinds of attachment-based neural activity that those with complicated grief exhibit may bear similarities to addiction, noting that it can prevent the individual from fully dealing with the loss.3 Simply put, people suffering from complicated grief can be “addicted” to their memories of their loved ones, to the point where it prevents them from moving on. The authors recommend “behavioral interventions that target reward processes” as one possible treatment.

Grief, Avoidance, Substance Abuse, and Addiction

Another key finding about complicated grief is the common presence of avoidance behaviors. Grief-related avoidance, intended to regulate strong emotions or avoid confronting the reality of death, can be pervasive and impairing.4 Substance use is a common avoidance behavior, with many studies noting that the “incidence of substance use [abuse] among individuals with traumatic histories is high”.5Psychotherapist Julia Samuel, writes of such avoidant substance use, “this absolute determination not to surrender to reality [of the loss] prevents people from moving beyond their grief, and living their life to the fullest,” and further advocates for finding support systems such as 12-step work or other communities that can help the individual recover from addiction and the grief that can underpin it.6

Treatment for Substance Use Disorder at Granite Recovery Centers

If you or a loved one are experiencing substance abuse as a response to bereavement and grief, there are resources. Bereavement and grief have no simple solutions. However, seeking therapy, support communities, and finding a drug rehab program can be vital first steps. Granite Recovery Centers in New Hampshire offers a comprehensive alcohol and drug rehab program that combines 12-Step work with other evidence-based clinical modalities, including grief and loss therapy for addiction. Our caring, professional team of 12-Step facilitators and licensed clinicians will help you or your loved one develop healthy coping strategies for grief and teach you how to work towards a sober, healthier life. To discuss an admission to Granite Recovery Centers and our drug rehab program, you can call 603-339-4160.


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