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A Pill for Your Grief

A Pill for Your Grief

It’s here. Not quite available to us all, but someday it will be, and we will be faced with the decision: to take it and reduce the effect of our bad memories or continue to suffer with them.

On the surface it sounds fairly straightforward. A negative life experience continues to cause problems; we take a pill and the negative effect of the memory is nearly gone, or at least significantly reduced. According to the research, the memory is still there; it just doesn’t hurt as much. Other related memories remain intact.

The pill is called Propranolol, a beta blocker commonly used to reduce blood pressure. According to the latest news, university researchers gave the drug over a ten-day period to accident and rape victims who were asked to tell the stories of traumas that had happened to them ten years earlier. A one-week follow-up revealed that, when asked to recall their traumatic event, the people given the drug showed fewer signs of stress (compared to a placebo group). While the drug availability is still quite limited, it has reportedly been used on some soldiers returning from the Iraq war to help minimize the occurrence of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

So, is it for you? It’s certainly enticing. Think back on all of the negative events associated with the death of your loved one that continue to be part of your grief. Like many people, you may have probably said at some point, “I wish this would all just go away.”

So, let’s look at how that might work. You walk into a lab. (You didn’t think they were going to let you do this at home, did you?) You are introduced to the staff, who explains the process. You sit down with a therapist, swallow the pill and begin to talk about the traumatic events surrounding the death of your loved one. As you tell the story, the emotions well up within you. It almost feels as if you are living this hell all over again as you recount some of the following:
• The first moment you realized that death was imminent or had occurred.
• The scorching pain as you realized that this was no dream.
• The people who were of comfort and those who were less so.
• The places related to the death, perhaps a room in a house, a building, a hospital, a funeral home, a neighborhood.
• The weather—clouds, rain, sun, the smell in the air.
• Related objects such as cars, clothing, a bed, a wallet, purse, jewelry.

With emotions tearing at your heart, you finish your story. Now the pill begins its work. One week later you are back in the lab with the therapist who asks you to now recount the story. As you begin, you feel a little anxious because the story has come up a lot during the past week. You plunge into the heart of the story and surprisingly find that somehow the negative emotions that always went along with it are much less intense. You continue with the story and find that the events have somehow become distant. Those terrible things happened, but now they seem almost in another lifetime. After some additional discussion with the therapist, you walk out the door of the lab. How do you feel? Did it work the way you hoped it would?

Research has yielded few physical side effects of Propranolol, but what about the psychological side effects of a pill that has the power to decrease emotional responses to bad memories? The research in this area will not be final until hundreds of people have been tested with short- and long-term follow-ups. For example, will the pill and accompanying therapy be capable of excising only those slices of memory that we consider negative? What if some positive emotions associated with the memories of our loved ones are also reduced? (The process appears to be non-reversible.) What about the concept of “grief work”—the idea that, in order to “get better” you must somehow work through your grief by confronting the painful reminders associated with your loved one’s death? If we circumvent this work, have we really moved forward with the grief process?
Think about the past and the thousands of years that billions of people on this planet have grieved the deaths of their loved ones. Now, for the first time in human history, we may have a new way to grieve—by altering the chemistry of our brain. Next, think about the future. The year is 2020—only ten years from now. In that year alone there will be approximately two-and-a-half million deaths in the U.S. If each of these people had at least ten close, loved ones, it would mean that twenty-five million people would be candidates for the pill.

What kind of world would it then be? Would all twenty-five million people seek to reduce their grief or would some choose to do it the old fashioned way? Would some overdose, taking pills for every conceivable negative memory? Will we again find that the human brain is too complex to be repaired by a pill? Stay tuned. If I’m still around in 2020, I’ll revisit this topic again.

Until then, I wish you happy memories.

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