The Consequence of Grief [1 of 4]: Grief and the Brain
Updated: May 13
Today, I’m going to get super nerdy and scientific on you.
Are you ok with that?
You’ve probably heard the term ‘baby brain; to describe the mind numbing fog that sets in when someone bring home a new baby and they are sleep deprived and overwhelmed.
You may have also heard the term, ‘chemo brain’ where people who are undergoing cancer treatment and have trouble concentrating as a reaction to the medications being put into their body.
The concept of ‘grief brain’ is less discussed but equally real.
You are probably wondering .”What is grief brain and why is it happening?”
When you grieve, you experience physical, psychological, and emotional responses to the loss and it all starts in the brain.
Your brain is trying to recover from the loss.
You are experiencing a biological response to the loss.
Using functional MRI’s and CAT scans, researchers can see first hand how grief affects our neurology.
Neuroscience has shown us that underneath the emotional experience of grief are neurological changes that take place in the brain.
The specific grief symptoms that I will be discussing can be broken down into 4 different areas:
-Memory and recall is less sharp
-Concentration is compromised
-Emotional concerns like irritability/anger/sadness/ numbness/anxiety
-Inability to make decisions
Studies utilizing FMRI’s on grieving people show us that specific parts of the brain are affected during grief. These parts include:
- The limbic system
- Prefrontal cortex
The limbic system is responsible for emotions, survival, instinct, and memory.
The amygdala, which is a part of the limbic system, helps to store memories and governs the perception of emotions like fear, anger, sadness, and aggression. Because the amygdala is also in charge of our survival, it’s the area of our brain that resists grief because it perceives grief as a threat. The amygdala houses all the emotional tools that we need to survive.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for our ability to create meaning, planning, self control, and self expression.
Brain scans reveal that loss, grief, and traumas can significantly negatively impact a person’s emotional articulation and expression. And that’s pretty messed up since it’s so important to be able to express these experiences.
When you are grieving, a flood of neurochemicals and hormones stream around in your brain. Chemicals like dopamine and serotonin work in a fine balance to keep our mood stable. During grief, these chemicals get thrown out of balance and disrupts our mood. This is why people grieving can experience such drastic mood swings and cry at the drop of a hat.
Although your loss is deeply rooted in your heart and the love that you feel for your loved one, the brain is also at play as neuroscience has proven.
After hearing about all of these biological factors that occur during grief, you probably believe that you are powerless and just have to stand by and wait for the brain to get through the grief.
No, no no!
A lot of research over the last few years has been focused on neurogenesis.
Neurogenesis is the process in which new neurons are formed in the brain.
Neurogenesis in the limbic system improves our memory, reduces stress hormones, and regulates mood. So we want to engage in activities that promote neurogenesis when we are grieving.
According to studies, sustained physical exercise promotes neurogenesis within the limbic system which intern promotes regulation of emotions, memories linked to emotions, as well as the creation of new emotions.
Shared experiences and companionship also stimulates neurogenesis and reduces feelings of grief.
Finally, sleep will also aid in neurogenesis.
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Love to you,
Janeen Mary Chasan LCAT ATR-BC
Licensed, Registered and Board Certified Creative Arts Therapist
Filmmaker, Podcaster and Online Educator