Mood-Altering Chemicals, Frank Thell

Loss is painful. It represents an ending. Every area of life—physical, emotional, spiritual and social—can be affected by a major loss. The pain created by a loss is an emotional wound that needs healing. For the healing to occur, we need to grieve for the loss and all it represents. If we do not allow ourselves to grieve, the wound may scab over but not heal completely. Grieving is hard work and involves a range of feelings. It requires that we make adjustments, learn new skills and take charge of our lives. It can leave us physically and emotionally exhausted. However, if grief is avoided, it can create its own problems. We become physically or emotionally ill and not be able to move forward and fully experience life. One of the most harmful things you can do is to bottle up your feelings. Denying or repressing feelings often intensifies and prolongs working through grief. If you don’t let your feelings out, they will come out at some other time or in some other way.

Often times people revert to artificial means to cope with or avoid their grief. One of these ways is to use mood-altering chemicals such as alcohol. Alcohol, by its nature, is a sedative drug, which in its initial stage can relax a person and produce mild euphoria. However, excessive use compounds the grief process, by replacing the initial relaxed stage with depression, anger, loss of control, shame, guilt and denial. These are the same issues that we are trying to avoid during the grieving process. Using mood-altering chemicals not only produces these new symptoms but also magnifies and exaggerates the ones produced by our loss. The initial feelings of contentment and relaxation may be overpowered by loss of inhibition, continuous talking, increased sensitivity to audio and visual effects, increased sensitivity of touch, smell, taste and movement. Confusion, disorientation, recent memory loss, reduced attention span, lack of balance and stability, loss of muscle strength, shaking, anxiety and paranoia occur with higher dosages. In addition, symptoms such as chronic sleep problems, nervousness, high blood pressure and decreased emotional control are likely to be present.

If we put the symptoms and effects of grief and alcohol abuse side by side, these are the common responses to both:

  1. Emotional reactions: Withdrawal, Guilt, Loneliness, Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Despair, Short Fuse
  2. Physical Reactions: Sleep Disturbance, Stomach Aches, Headaches, Appetite Changes, Dehydration, Fatigue
  3. Mental Reactions: Memory Loss, Confusion, Preoccupation, Loss of Concentration, Forgetfulness, Lack of Motivation
  4. Social Reactions: Friends are Scarce, Social Group Change, Absence of Usual Role, Financial Spin-off, Withdrawal
  5. Spiritual Reactions: Questioning and doubting, Anger at God, Loss of Faith

So, what is the answer when we are experiencing grief do to a significant loss? We will want to curtail our use of alcohol or other drugs and possibly abstain totally from their use while we process the loss. The following are some suggestions to cope with the loss:

  1. Give yourself permission to feel the pain and loss.
  2. Accept yourself as you experience your pain, your emotions, your own way of healing and your own timetable.
  3. Express your feelings.
  4. Get support. Talk about your loss, your memories and your experience of the life and death of your loved one.
  5. Take care of yourself: eat well and exercise.
  6. Try to maintain your basic lifestyle.
  7. Avoid overindulgence or even social use of alcohol.
  8. Give yourself a break from grief. Although it is necessary to work through grief, you do not need to constantly focus on it. It is healthy to find appropriate distractions like going to a ball game, reading a good book, listening to music, going to dinner and getting a massage or manicure.
  9. Join a support group. Others can give you encouragement, information, comfort, practical suggestions and can help you feel less isolated.