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What are the signs of prolonged grief? Can it promote addictive behavior?

Updated on September 8, 2014

Can we move into addiction when we are stuck in grief?

Grief, Bereavement and Mourning: A Means to Addiction

Grieving is a natural response or involuntary emotional reaction to loss. Grief experienced in the early phases of bereavement take on forms of sadness, anger, troubling cognition's, absent-mindedness, difficulty in concentration or memory, and disturbances of sleep and appetite.

Bereavement refers to the state of having experienced a loss and the process of adjustment to that loss, while mourning involves the active behavioral process of coping with bereavement and grief. There are many factors or characteristics attributing to the degree in which one suffers a loss, the greater the potential for loss, the more intense and extended the response to grieving will become. Factors contributing to the characteristic responses to grief depend on one’s personality traits, cultural background, and developmental levels. Relationships to the deceased, mode of death, one’s availability to social support systems as well previous and concurrent stressors are also contributors to individual grief responses.

Normal Grief

Grief which accompanies loss, though very painful and individual, is a normal adaptive method that may take longer in some than in others, and is a natural process to healing. Normal grievers are consciously aware of their own feelings, the significance of the loss event, and how the loss may change their lives throughout the grieving process. Although grievers suffering from a traumatic loss are similar in the normal stages of grieving, they tend to assume “exaggerated or complicated” styles of prolonged grief, which may take longer to work through. Survivors of traumatic loss often experience affective disturbances. These disturbances are typically observed as emotional and behavioral responses, which are internalization and externalization of exaggerated or volatile feeling states. Internalized responses take on forms of depression, avoidance, or withdrawal. While externalization responses present themselves in the forms of anger, outbursts, or labile moods. Complicated grief tends to occur when and individual resorts to some form of compromise, distortion, or failure in working through one or more of the “six R’s of mourning (1) recognizing the loss (2) reacting to the separation (3) recollecting and re-experiencing the loss and the relationship (4) relinquishing the old attachments of the loss and the old assumptive world (5) readjustment to move into the new world without forgetting the old and (6) reinvestment into the current world of life.

Barriers to Grieving Process

One’s cultural ties, socioeconomic status, interpersonal factors, and those suffering from pathological grief may become barriers in resolving and/or in meeting an individual’s needs to cope with loss. For example, not until recently has the cultural climax of the United States taken a proactive approach with acknowledging the need to discuss the effects of loss. Traditionally, openly discussing one’s feelings about death or loss was considered taboo and seen as being an unpleasant experience, or even feared by some. Socioeconomic ties pose as a barrier, especially in areas where appropriated resources are lacking for those living in a lower class structure. In viewing interpersonal skills, some exhibit a natural inclination towards stronger interpersonal abilities than others. Depending on one’s natural inclination to discuss their feelings, usually determines their ability or willingness to seek solace from an outside source.

Those who do not employ strong interpersonal skills may view their feelings as being a burden that should not be imposed onto others, believing the path of grief is a lonely and painful trek that is overtly unique to them. Mourners who experience “intensified” levels of grief to which they feel overwhelmed, resort to maladaptive behavior, or remain interminably in a state of grief without progression towards healing are viewed as suffering from pathological grief. Mourners suffering with pathological grief are also unaware of their true loss.

Drug Addiction and Dual Diagnosis

At least half of those suffering from addiction carry genes that predispose one to this disease. However, it is not simply a result of genetics. A combination of factors must come together in order for addiction to occur. Choosing to experiment, having a family history of abuse and/ or mental illness, environmental surroundings as well as family perceptions and beliefs all play a vital role. Most addicts stated that their addiction began with weekend-use of beer or marijuana and/or temporarily solved or downplayed present psychological (depression), emotional (anxiety) social problems (uncomfortable in one’s skin). Factor in a traumatic event or loss of a loved one and those already suffering from psychological, emotional, and/or social inadequacies are prompted to seek out alternatives to coping with the loss experience. ECA reported a study revealing mental health concerns such as major depression, anxiety disorders, or schizophrenia frequently coexist with addiction. In fact, when an addiction already exist, chances of developing additional mental health problems increase, and the presence of more than one mental health issue increases the probability for developing an addiction.

Analysis of Information

Though I could not find any direct lineage between grieving the loss of a loved one or an event to addiction, evidence states that those who are already suffering from anxiety, depression, or any other form of mental illness are more likely to seek out or become addicted to a substance than those who are not. Due to the level of one’s grief state renders probability that those whose cultural ties, socioeconomic status, lack of interpersonal skills and/or are currently suffering from pathological grief are more predisposed to becoming an addict. Additionally, it can be assumed that those who begin using drugs or alcohol as means of escaping the grief may turn the normal grieving process into a complicated form of grieving. Freud (1917) concluded that pathological mourning exists when an individual expresses anxiety, depression and mania, and more than one kind of personality disorder further empathizing that a significant loss plays a major role in the development of psychopathology, thus potential for onset of addiction to develop. Bowlby (1980) extended on Freud’s (1917) theory by targeting depressive disorders as a point of major concern when discussing loss, further determining that loss has three roles in contributing to depressive orders. Hence, due to the significance of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders playing a major role in how one does or does not effectively cope with a loss could easily contribute to the onset of addiction, if one chooses to initially minimize the pain experience with mood altering drugs or alcohol.

When grief becomes prolonged

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© 2014 Amy Casale Choisser

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    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      4 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Grief is such an all-encompassing experience, that when loss is significant, I can see how it would result in maladaptive behaviors such as addiction. The feelings are so overwhelming, that one cannot deal with them successfully unless aid or support from others is available. Social isolation would increase the chances, and since those with mental health issues are often socially isolated, that would increase the likelihood of maladaptive behavior.

    • dilipchandra12 profile image

      Dilip Chandra 

      4 years ago from India

      An interesting read, the analysis was good...

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