From The Blog

Grief and addiction recovery: Identifying Existential Grief

In terms of addiction, Existential Grief can continually derail recovery and unexpectedly trigger relapse – unless you get a handle on it. More on why regaining a connection with a sense of place and having belief in a higher power is so important to recovery. More here!

Do you feel deeply lonely, even in addiction recovery?

You are not alone!

Disconnection from community or the larger picture can be at the heart of addiction. Learn more about how to identify and deal with grief in addiction – specifically, Existential Grief – in this insightful article. Then, we invite your comments and questions about Existential Grief at the end. In fact, we try to respond to all real life questions personally and promptly!

Dealing with Existential Grief when diagnosed with addiction

Let’s face it, if you’ve lived long enough, most likely you already know what grief feels like…. the deep sense of

  • loss
  • hurt
  • unbelievable levels of sorrow
  • crushing emotional pain
  • disbelief
  • shock

…and numbness that comes about due to the death of a close loved one, beloved pet or other loss. When you add the prospect of addiction to the equation, the potential emotional spiral downward into despair can be quite steep.

Although you may already be familiar with grief or even complicated grief – unending and profoundly deep levels of sorrow, despair and emotional strain with no seeming relief in sight – you may not be familiar with Existential Grief, an insidious and “hidden” form of grief that often is staring you right in the face but you cannot “see it” since it’s in your emotional blind spot.

“Existential Grief” affects every part of your life

Even though you may have an uneasy feeling that something is not right, this type of grief tends to operate below conscious awareness; so even though Existential Grief may be affecting many areas of your life, you are “unaware” of what the source of this vague anxiety or sense of uncomfortability might be.

In terms of emotions in addiction recovery, this form of grief, unless addressed, can continually derail recovery and unexpectedly trigger and re-trigger addictive episodes unless you get a handle on it.

The bad news is that there are no short cuts for recovering from and healing Existential Grief. All too often, you may try to find a “quick fix” for your problems. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for this type of grief.

The really good news is that although recovering from Existential Grief can be a “tough nut” to crack, if you are willing to do the internal work, then you can reap the benefits of recovery and move onto healing yourself. It’s challenging work that involves self reflection and developing coping skills for grief but with the professional help and guidance of therapists or coaches, you can do it!

In this article (Part 1 of 2), we’ll lay out the terrain for you in which grief and Existential Grief exists… including what happens when you do not address your grief – bad outcomes – as well as the benefits you derive when you recover from and heal your Existential Grief. Next, in Part 2, we’ll lay out solutions for recovering from Existential Grief, then later discuss what it means to heal your Existential Grief.

Why is grief so devastating?

Did you know that:

  • 1 in 5 children will experience the death of a close loved one or beloved pet by the age of 18?
  • A recent poll indicated that 9 out of 10 high school juniors and seniors had experienced the death of a close loved one?
  • Approximately 8 million Americans will suffer the anguish of the death of a close loved one this year?
  • A study by Bunch et al. found that the teen suicide rate skyrocketed 5 times after the death of their mother or father?
  • Severe grief reactions or complicated grieving is more likely to occur in individuals who showed signs of depression before the loss?
  • Some people never recover fully from the death of a close loved one or beloved pet?

Clearly many Americans are hurting and suffering due to grief and they are grieving deeply.

What is Grief?

The psychological research literature describes bereavement as the state of sorrow you feel over the death or loss of a close loved one. From a psychological perspective, bereavement describes the state of loss such as that caused by the death of someone or something, e.g. pet or object close to you. Whereas grief is generally defined as the reaction you have to the death (loss) of a close loved one.

Of course, in your every day experience, it really doesn’t matter what we call it since we know all too well that losing a close loved one usually results in deep states of mourning, sadness, disbelief and numbness. In fact, most of us use and substitute the terms “bereavement,” “grief,” and “mourning” almost interchangeably. Importantly, the death of a close loved one can trigger a wide range of emotions including powerful negative emotions. This may include:

  • blaming yourself for the person’s death
  • despair that becomes depression
  • a sense of feeling abandoned, helplessness, or hopelessness

Such intense feelings of emotional pain can cause you to consider numbing yourself by self medicating in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure but following such an illusory and short lived path will only deepen your addiction and addictive tendencies.

The Purpose of Grief

Although you may never have thought about it, the purpose of grief is to enhance your chances of survival by positively resetting your nervous system so that you are able to effectively handle the additional stress and havoc the death of the close loved one has caused.

In other words, successfully recovering from grief improves your chances of survival by raising your habitual stress set point. Another way of looking at this is that successfully transitioning the grief process leaves you with higher levels of resiliency and stress hardiness. In this way, you have a better chance of being able to “move on” with your life.

When you are not able to successfully recover from grief or your grief is “complicated”, the physiological upheaval of your grief reaction disrupts your internal sense of safety and homeostasis. In practical terms, this can mean that your levels of stress and anxiety producing neurochemicals, e.g. adrenalin and cortisol are continually pouring into your bloodstream. The result is that your average allostatic loads increase dramatically; thus, not only may you feel extra sad or despondent but your immune system response is simultaneously lowered. This means your chances of getting ill or sick go way up!

Additionally, when your adrenal stress response is elevated to such a high degree, bloodflows to the executive decision making parts of your brain can shut down. This increases your risk of making poor choices such as deciding to self medicate or give up on the idea of abstaining from drugs or alcohol thus short circuiting chances for sustaining recovery. Therefore, getting a handle on your grief regardless of its form, can serve as a first step towards a successful recovery.

What is Existential Grief?

Existential Grief is a lesser known and little discussed form of grief but it represents a wide spread phenomena in our society. From a practical viewpoint, it can be defined as:

the sense of loss, disappointment, and associated despair felt in response to intangible losses such as the loss of connection with a sense of place (community), betrayal or trust, deceit or loss of belief (or value) in a higher power (God or other spiritual deity) for good.

An example of a person who experiences Existential Grief would be someone who had to move continually during their childhood, e.g. family job transfers every two to three years, so they have no sense of being from any place. Thus, they may experience difficulty establishing and maintaining friendships yet not know why. Their grief may be experienced as a vague sense of “things not being right” or not “connecting” with others. Additionally, they may have had the experience as a child of being repeatedly lied to and have subsequently lost faith in the promises of others. This can include losing faith in the existence of a Supreme Being.

Causes of Existential Grief

There are many potential causes of Existential Grief but underlying all causes conceptually is the notion that the loss is intangible. Top causes include:

  1. Loss of a sense of your life’s purpose
  2. Loss of any sense of meaning or faith that your actions make a difference
  3. Loss of connection with community

Usually, a person who is suffering from Existential Grief is unaware of its presence and yet they may feel a vague sense of overwhelming unease or anxiety that something is not right but cannot clearly identify the source of their discomfort.

Symptoms of Existential Grief

How can you know whether you may be suffering from Existential Grief? Below are some of the symptoms that manifest Existential Grief:

  • detachment
  • despair
  • sorrow
  • mourning
  • regret
  • alienation
  • loneliness
  • vague sense of unease that things are not right
  • global sense of anxiety of unknown origins
  • systemic low-level stress from unidentifiable causes

Experiencing Existential Grief in addiction recovery

As mentioned earlier, Existential Grief is a widespread though often unacknowledged aspect of human experience regardless of culture, race, ethnicity or religion. In fact, once you take a look at the list of what the experience of Existential Grief entails, you may be surprised to find that you have actually experienced one or more of these issues in your life. And, as you may imagine, the consequences and risks for addiction and addictive behaviors can skyrocket.

Can you relate to these feelings?:

  • a sense of not “fitting in”
  • a sense of being “different”
  • a sense of being continually “misunderstood” or “wrong”
  • an eternal sense of being a stranger even in familiar surroundings
  • relational mismatch of beliefs and values
  • lost sense of belonging to any group or place
  • global collapse of identity
  • a dissociated feeling that nothing really matters

Existential Grief can be fueling addiction

A key challenge in resolving and recovering from Existential Grief is that you have to overcome its tendency to mask itself as “something else.” So, even though you may be aware of some of the symptoms of Existential Grief and having Existential Grief experiences, it still may not occur to you that there may be a relationship between your unease or vague sense of anxiety and your addiction. However, when you consider that many people engage in addictive behaviors as a way to run away from or temporarily get relief from the emotional pain and distress they are feeling at the moment… it’s important to get a clearer picture of what may be going on in order to increase the chances for recovery.

Although self-medicating may provide some immediate relief by numbing your experience of emotional pain, in the end, such relief is short lived and speeds you down the slippery slope of retriggered addiction events – often with very unhappy endings including multiple hospitalizations, avoidable accidents and mistakes and can even lead to an early death.

Another key feature of Existential Grief which wraps around addiction is the global loss of identity when you are in recovery. Even though logically you know that you are better off being clean and maintaining sobriety or recovery, you may still from time to time wistfully long for and miss your previous identity as a user. This would including missing the places you used to hang out in and the people you used to associate with that were all part of your previous identity as an addict.

How to overcome grief and addiction? Overcoming and changing deep seated addictive behavioral patterns when you are experiencing Existential Grief combined with addiction can be tricky, so you should consider seeking out the help of professional therapists or coaches to increase your odds of recovery.

Want to learn more?

If you’d like to learn more about Existential Grief and how you can experience the benefits of healing your Existential Grief, contact me by email at Dr.Bob[at]StressFreeNow[DOT]info. Feel free to contact me with your questions or to schedule a wellness coaching session.