Grief and the Brain: Why it Hurts

Credit to Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com

By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC

I’m interrupting our normal blog posts to talk a bit about grief. For those readers who follow me on social media, you will know that this last few months have been filled with anxiety, fear, and loss since a rare (and aggressive) illness was diagnosed in my one horse, Duke. Fortunately, he has turned a corner and has become part of the 5% of horses that survive this illness. Unfortunately, this path continues to be full of grief and uncertainty.

So many of us experience loss in our life. Whether it be a sudden and unexpected loss (like showing up to work and being laid off without warning), or a prolong and expected loss (for example, having to say good-bye to a loved one after a battle with a terminal illness). Shit, Covid has even shown us on a near daily basis the grief of “normal” life. In this short, but sweet, post, I want to talk a bit about why we feel what we do when we have to close a chapter we don’t want to. For my own sanity and grief, I find this post necessary.

Our brain starts to identify the grief process within our prefrontal cortex. It does this by collecting information from our insula (the part of our brain that deals with our senses) about what is happening. As it starts to bring in facts that support that a loss is imminent (for all of those who know the stages of grief, this fits right in with denial), it tells the thalamus to wake up the hippocampus and hypothalamus. Once awake and aware of the information they have been given, they start the process of combing through our memories to relay information on how we processed grief and loss in the past. Along the way, the hippocampus will also throw at you memories that could disprove this loss is going to happen (thanks a lot hippocampus, nothing like false hope).

While this is going on, the thalamus thinks it is being super helpful and tells that darn amygdala what is going on. Do you know what that darn amygdala does? If you recall my very first post, Mental Health and The Brain: a Basic Breakdown (literally and figuratively) that darn amygdala decides to blow the alarm whistle. As it sends off it’s S.O.S., the hypothalamus changes gears from looking for beneficial memories to surfacing those scary dark ones (that panic you feel when we hear bad news? Yeah, that is your darn amygdala hijacking your limbic system).

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Now that your darn amygdala has your attention, the hypothalamus is going to tell the prefrontal cortex to kindly stay on hold while it dials in our adrenal glands to prepare to release the Triple F Response. Before our prefrontal cortex can pinpoint what is going on, the adrenaline and norepinephrine released into our brain and bloodstream, preparing us for the flood of emotions that are about to happen.

Want to learn more about the Triple F Response? Check out my post:

Fight-Flight-Freeze: The Ultimate Coping Skill

What is crazy about this particular Triple F Response is the other emotional responses it brings up. Science is still baffled by this as we know the acute stress response brings up shock, panic, anger, and other intense emotions as a way to help us survive. What it seems to lack being able to explain is the depression, isolation, and guilt that seems to come along with our grief process. Through late nights avoiding thinking about my poor Duke’s health, I found a study that shed some light was completed in 2019 by Mary-Frances O’Cconor. In her study she explored how the Triple F Response impacted our bodies when grief was present.

man doing a sample test in the laboratory
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The study took me by surprise, but I don’t think it should have. She demonstrated that when we are in prolonged and/or unexpected grief, our body’s biomarkers markers increase. What does that exactly mean? Biomarkers are indicators in your bloodstream that tells the doctors “hey, something isn’t right here.” These biomarkers show up in your heart, your immune system, and in your limbic system (shock and awe!!). These changes, as you know, can impact our body’s response and how it chooses to survive.

When it comes to our limbic system, our adrenal gland notices the physical changes happening in our body because of the grief. Have you ever notice how when you’re sick that you tend to be down in the dumps? You want to hide and sleep all the time? That is the physical acute stress response. This is the same case when our brain isn’t feeling well: we tend to hide, feel sad, and even get angry (perhaps this sounds like the anger and depression stages of the grief cycle?).

Other things that you may experience is that weird and overwhelming brain fog. You know, that fog that makes you feel like you can’t remember anything that is going on? This is directly related to the acute stress response on your hippocampus. When we are experiencing a prolong Triple F Response, our hippocampus starts to shrink. Couple that with the flooding of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol, the prefrontal cortex becomes overwhelmed. It starts to struggle to differentiate facts from emotions, which drives that darn amygdala to try to save the day and do what it does best: filter information with cognitive distortions!

All of these lead to this overwhelming feeling of us being alone. Even though we know we are not the only people who have experienced grief, loss, or massive life changes, our brain makes us feel like no one can ever fix our pain. Why is that? Well, you can thank your darn amygdala for that one! As the Triple F Response continues to linger around, so does the depression. As we covered it in my post, Depression and All That Jazz, the lack of serotonin in our brain can create feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, and promote isolation. Something to keep in mind and use as a thought challenge: You are not alone!

Want to learn more about the neuroscience behind grief? Check out Lisa Shulman’s book on the right

Coping Skills Alert

When it comes to coping with grief and loss, and I cannot stress this enough: LET YOURSELF FEEL THESE FEELINGS!! These feelings are valid and are giving you crucial information about what is going on inside of your brain. No matter how painful these emotions are, do not ignore or avoid them, FEEL THEM!

Next thing we can do to help keeping our brain healthy and not being locked in to that awesome Triple F Response permanently is engage our brains in rewiring activities. You got it, you’ve got to practice what we’ve been talking about in all of these posts. Whether it is mindfulness when a wave of anger floods us, creating a new routine, or even challenging some of our negative thoughts with wise mind, these activities will help the prefrontal cortex remind that darn amygdala that you are not alone. These activities will continue to release the feel good neurotransmitters to counteract the Triple F Response. Lastly, these things will help your brain (and your heart) slowly start the process of mending.

Grief is something that sticks with us and hits us at different times in different ways. It isn’t linear like the stages of grief tell us they are (note how I referenced them, but didn’t go into detail about them). Grief is more complex than a linear path we were taught in our psychology classes. During this time of grief and loss, you need to remember to show yourself patience, some grace, and remember that healing takes time.

I want to thank you all for coming on this short journey with me and exploring grief in our brains. If you want to learn more about grief, please let me know below and I will create a more in-depth post about the impact of grief on the brain.

To recap this post:

– Grief occurs when we experience a distressful situation

– Grief is part of our Triple F Response

– You are not alone!

References

Image Sources

Credit to Carissa Weber at www.thatdarnamygdala.com

5 responses to “Grief and the Brain: Why it Hurts”

  1. Excellent article! You’ve done a great job breaking down a complicated process into something that can be understood. Thank you!

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