The loss of a loved one is probably one of the most painful experiences we go through in life. However, this emotional tsunami not only shakes our inner world, but also represents a severe blow to our brain, to the point that some neuroscientists have come to equate the loss of a loved one with the effects of a brain injury since the chaos it creates is quite similar.
The afflicted brain, the consequences of grief on a day-to-day basis
Did you know that voles are monogamous and form pair bonds for life? Neuroscientists at Columbia University analyzed their behavior and discovered that they have a special network of neurons that has evolved to facilitate that special bond and follow up with their partner.
They have also discovered what they called “couple focus neurons,” which are concentrated especially in the amygdala, the area that acts as an “emotional command center” in the brain. The number of these neurons increases and their connections are strengthened as the relationship is consolidated. Our brains likely work in a similar way creating unique connections to the people we love and depend on.
For that reason, when the person we love suddenly physically disappears, our brains don’t shut down as easily. It needs time to understand that this person is no longer there. To assume it and restructure the connections that have been created over time.
That explains why, during the first moments of mourning, we not only feel pain, but are also plunged into a sense of unreality and confusion, as if we were waking up in a strange world where all the rules have changed.
Our brain struggles to find some order in the midst of that chaos. It tries to find a meaning. It tries to locate the person we’ve lost. That is why we are pushed to review one scenario after another. One shared experience after another. One possibility after another… It’s our brain refusing to accept what happened as it struggles to give new meaning to a future that is inconceivable to us.
All of this occurs as we try to get on with our lives or at least maintain basic functioning. We have to get up, go to work, take care of the children, meet social commitments, remember to pay the bills… It is as if we were trying to read and understand Nietzsche while running a marathon.
Obviously, thanks to neuroplasticity, our brains can create new connections in response to psychological trauma, but that takes time and energy. For some time, our brain is turned upside down and has no choice but to prioritize the most primitive functions.
The prefrontal cortex, the area involved in making rational decisions and self-control, goes into the background, and the limbic system, where our survival instincts and emotional reactions operate, takes command, carrying out a true emotional hijacking.
All of these changes explain why we often experience brain fog as a sequel to grief. They also explain why we can feel like we’re continually losing our minds or getting off track. In fact, we can lose track of time, go out to do something and forget what it was, or even go somewhere without knowing where we are or how we got there.
The role of pain in rewiring our brain
Traumatic loss is perceived as a threat to our survival, so for default we use to fight, flight, or freeze. Every day, reminders of the loss trigger that stress response that ultimately reshapes the circuitry in the brain, helping us get through the loss and rebuild our lives.
In fact, moderate stress encourages nerve growth and improves memory while minimizing fear, but chronic stress causes reduced nerve growth, affects memory, and enhances fear. That means the pain of bereavement gives the brain a chance to learn how to manage emotions and rewire itself to function in a world where the person we love is no longer there.
For that reason, it is not a good idea to try to run away or suppress the pain. In the long term, if we avoid the pain of grief, our brain will not be able to process what happened. Avoiding people, places or activities that remind us of that person takes us out of our routine, helping us to avoid suffering, but it does not allow us to recover and reconfigure our situation in the world.
Find a way to move on
Although pain and stress can be positive, when they cross a certain threshold they become counterproductive. Our brain has often troubles processing the reasons for the death of a loved one, so that many times it will be tempted to invent re-explanations. This can lead us into a spiral of “what if…” or “if only…”, leaving us trapped in a loop of suffering.
Getting stuck can have a negative effect on the brain, and the longer this situation lasts, the stronger the new dysfunctional connections that are established. When a circuit is triggered repeatedly, it is reinforced until it becomes the default setting.
In the long term, silent grief can affect cognitive functioning, from attention and memory to decision making, visuospatial function, verbal fluency, and even the speed with which we process information.
That means there is a time for everything. There is a time to let the pain flow and a time to move on, even if it seems impossible at first.
With grief, the challenge is to integrate the rational part of the brain with the emotional part, so that we don’t drown in feelings without thought mediating, or suppress feelings in favor of rational thought. Mindfulness meditation is an excellent tool to reconnect with our “here”, now, since it is at that moment that we can find some comfort. When our mind wanders into dark passages, we must gently bring it back to the present moment.
Obviously, overcoming grief is not easy. Much learning comes in fits and starts and can be frustrating or painful at times. When a loved one leaves us, the map with which our brain worked is profoundly altered. For a while, neurons fire in all directions trying to make sense of things and we feel lost.
Over time, we can make new connections, especially as we learn to navigate this new sea. We learn to locate ourselves differently in the world and develop new meanings. But we have to give ourselves the opportunity so that our brain can change that configuration. And that doesn’t mean forgetting, just moving on, as the person who left us probably would have wanted.
Scribner, J. L. et. Al. (2020) A neuronal signature for monogamous reunión. PNAS; 117 (20): 11076-11084.
Paturel, A. (2020) The Traumatic Loss of a Loved One Is Like Experiencing a Brain Injury. En: Discover Magazine.
O’Connor, M. (2019) Grief: A Brief History of Research on How Body, Mind, and Brain Adapt. Psychosom Med; 81(8): 731–738.
Silva, A. C. et. Al. (2014) Neurological aspects of grief. CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets; 13(6): 930-936.