Your Brain on Grievances Looks a Lot Like Your Brain on Drugs

Shireen Qudosi
3 min readFeb 24, 2021

If grievance is a form of addiction, then “your brain on grievances looks a lot like your brain on drugs.” That’s the argument laid out by violence researcher James Kimmel, Jr.

If the argument holds water, an expanded understanding of grievance retention (and possibly the victimhood culture that severe grievances pan out into) could shed new light on the “push/pull” dynamics that draw young people to extremist ideologies.

Kimmel is a lawyer and a lecturer in psychiatry at Yale University of Medicine, who believes the science of addiction can be used to understand grievances, retaliation and violent crime. Writing for Politico, Kimmel breaks down the parallels he has found in “brain biology” between substance addiction and grievance.

Scientists have found that in substance addiction, environmental cues such as being in a place where drugs are taken or meeting another person who takes drugs cause sharp surges of dopamine in crucial reward and habit regions of the brain, specifically, the nucleus accumbens and dorsal striatum. This triggers cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through intoxication.

Recent studies show that similarly, cues such as experiencing or being reminded of a perceived wrong or injustice — a grievance — activate these same reward and habit regions of the brain, triggering cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through retaliation. To be clear, the retaliation doesn’t need to be physically violent — an unkind word, or tweet, can also be very gratifying.”

What Kimmel is pointing out here is different from just a one-time grievance, or even a grievance revisited. The underlying momentum shaping a grievance into an addiction is when a grievance is pushed into re-animation through the emotional triggers and experiential anchors that first created the trauma or grievance.

With his background in violence research, Kimmel explores the next step after a grievance becomes a new focal point in an identity construct:

“Although these are new findings and the research in this area is not yet settled, what this suggests is that similar to the way people become addicted to drugs or gambling, people may also become…

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Shireen Qudosi

I write on faith, identity, and belonging, focusing closely on the sacred feminine and cultivating intimacy with the profane.