Grief and the Brain

Transcript of Neuro Nugget Video:

Grief can rewire our brain in a way that worsens memory, cognition, and concentration. You might feel spacey or forgetful or unable to make good decisions. It might also be difficult to speak or express yourself.

These effects are known as grief brain. Acute grief refers to the symptoms a person experiences during the first six months after losing a loved one. These are usually the most intense. Your days may involve a mixture of yearning and sadness along with constant thoughts and memories and images of the loved one. Small tasks can feel overwhelming and exhausting.

What are the effects of grief on the brain? Well, the brain reacts to grief or emotional trauma in the same way it handles stress. Although low levels of stress can actually be a good thing, chronic stress is not. Grief that lasts for weeks or months or longer, can push the body into a state of chronic stress. And chronic stress puts the brain into long-term survival mode. This means your fight or flight hormones are released, your heart rate increases, your blood flows to the more emotional and fear-based parts of your brain instead of the higher thinking regions. Your prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain highly involved in decision making, becomes less active.

At the same time, your limbic system, which is all about survival, takes over. Depending on the severity of the emotional response, the brain starts to rewire its regular nerve connections and create new pathways. In other words, more emotional and fear-based thoughts start to replace your long held beliefs about the world. Constant reminders of the loved ones passing like their favorite song or TV show continue to trigger the stress response and make these new pathways stronger. Over time, grief can affect your attention, memory, decision making, the ability to choose words and express yourself with the right language, your information processing speed, your cognitive functions that rely on movement and depth perception.

A 2019 research review on neuroimaging suggests that the more severe a person’s grief reaction, the greater the effect on the brain. For instance, researchers have found differences in rumination, inflammation, and cortisol dysregulation between people who are resilient after the death of a loved one and people who are not. In two studies in the review, the majority of the bereaved had a resilient grieving pattern. This means they had lower levels of depression and higher emotional stability than people with chronic grief. By six months, resilient people showed no increase in depressive symptoms or functional impairment. People with resilient grieving patterns usually shift back and forth between loss related thoughts and restoration related thoughts. Other times, these people are just engaged in everyday life.

Continuing to experience sharp pangs of grief is very typical. When a loved one dies suddenly or violently it can lead to additional mental health symptoms in the people who mourn them. Unexpected death is more strongly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD and panic disorder than expected death is, according to a recent study. Though grief can have a significant effect on the brain these changes are temporary for most people. The brain is resilient and able to rebalance itself over time, even after painful experiences.

If you feel like grief is overwhelming your ability to function consider reaching out for help today. Wanna learn more about your brain and how it functions? Call and schedule your brain map today.

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Posted on

May 10, 2023