Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chemical Dependencies

I'm always fascinated to learn about the powerful chemicals sloshing around our cranium. One neurotransmitter in particular, dopamine, plays several critical roles in grief and grief recovery.

The inspiration for this post came from reading The Science of Setting Goals by Dustin Wax. It reminded me of another article I read a few years ago about how America is High on Dopamine.

I've written before about ways to release endorphins, that natural form of opiate produced by our bodies. But it is important to understand the role dopamine plays in grief, in contrast to endorphins. I'll quote some pertinent info from the second article first:

Dopamine is a pleasure-inducing brain chemical, a neurotransmitter that controls action. Dopamine is associated with addiction of all types. Recent studies have indicated that dopamine responds more to unpredictable rewards than to predictable ones. A part of the brain called the striatum where dopamine exists seems to care more about what it cannot predict. In a sense, dopamine produces a need for novelty.

Dopamine has been associated with the novelty of drinking, gambling and other addictions, but it is also connected with curiosity, adventure, entrepreneurship and accomplishments.

How does this relate to bereaved widow/ers? When our spouse was alive, we became addicted to them chemically. Just being around them released endorphins, which contributed greatly to our sense of well-being. Now that our spouse is dead, we no longer get the endorphin hit and suffer withdrawal.

Dopamine played a role in our wanting to be around our spouse. When we love someone, we do things for them. Think back to a time when you did something for your late spouse. Maybe it was something simple like picking up some flowers they liked on the way home from work. That act of love involved dopamine. Here's some info from the first article:

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

This explains a great deal of how our body responds when we lose our mate:

One of the greatest of desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

For me, anyway, it was helpful to know that those horrible feelings I experienced during my acute grieving were partially chemically-induced. What I wished I had learned earlier was why I found planning for the future to be so traumatic. As I came to learn, future planning is a major grief trigger. Here's one reason why:

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

So now I understand why I felt so terrible when I was still recently bereaved and trying to plan my life without Deb. I was already suffering the loss of dopamine-induced pleasure I used to receive from 14 years of being around her. And then, when I set a goal for my future as a single father, my mind further starved me of dopamine because I hadn't yet attained it! A double-whammy.

All this to say, take it easy on yourself when you are grieving. And when you feel like crap because you can't get up the gumption to do something simple like get some groceries, now you can blame it on the drugs ;-)

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