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    Five Ways That Grief Rewires The Brain

    Grief is a natural response to loss, something we will all have to experience at some point.

    There are many ways to describe grief, with some descriptions being more helpful than others.

    One useful explanation comes from grief recovery experts John W. James and Russell Friedman. 

    They define grief as “the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behaviour.”

    This definition covers a much broader scope of grief than most as it emphasises that loss is not solely about death but can also occur from any significant loss or change in your life, such as the end of a close relationship, losing your job, or moving home. 

    Grief affects us all in different ways. 

    Depending on the nature of our loss, losing someone or something dear to us can shatter our sense of safety, self, and perceptions about the world in general.

    As well as the emotional effects, grief can also facilitate significant changes in the body, with many studies showing the profound impact that grief can have on the brain.

    A neurologist at The University of Maryland’s School of Medicine, Dr. Lisa M. Shulman, explains that our brains perceive traumatic loss as a threat to survival.

    Therefore, any perceived threat we encounter (such as the loss of a loved one) can trigger significant responses from the brain, changing how it functions, which may cause various complications and symptoms.

    This article outlines five ways that grief can rewire the brain. In the meantime, if you are struggling to come to terms with the loss of a loved one or are concerned about your emotional well-being, our compassionate team in South Africa is here to listen.

    Meet our clinical team

    Our team comprises counsellors, therapists, nurses, and mental health specialists who have extensive experience and knowledge in diagnosing and treating various emotional issues, including:

    As well as the above, we understand the profound impact of losing a loved one on all aspects of your life.

    However, loss doesn’t have to define who you are or limit your potential for the future.

    To learn more about how we can help you navigate this difficult time in your life, contact one of our specialists at our South African recovery centre, who will happily lend a warm, compassionate ear.

    Five ways that grief rewires the brain

    Grief triggers many feelings, emotions, and sensations that can leave us unprepared, shocked, and confused about what to do or where to turn.

    You may feel angry one minute, and then the next comes an unexpected wave of intense sorrow or disbelief.

    Grief can be profoundly confusing and overwhelming, making it challenging for you to fully process your loss or come to terms with the death of a loved one.

    Mourning the loss of someone or something we care about is natural, but what happens to our brains when we are grieving?

    Various research shows the many ways that grief can rewire the brain, five of which are outlined below.

    1. Attention and memory

    White River Manor - Treatment in South Africa - Anxiety, Grief Management

    If you’ve experienced grief in your life, you will know just how consumed your thoughts can become about the loss.

    In the initial phases of mourning, grieving individuals may experience various cognitive issues, including memory loss and an inability to pay attention or focus on other things outside their grief.

    Researchers describe these cognitive disturbances as “grief brain.”

    “Grief can rewire our brain in a way that worsens memory, cognition, and concentration. 

    You might feel spacey, forgetful, or unable to make “good” decisions. It might also be challenging to speak or express yourself.” (What Does Grief Do to Your Brain? PsychCentral, Traci Pedersen, 6 May 2022.)

    You may find that the days and weeks following your loss include a combination of sadness, confusion, longing, and anger, as well as vivid memories and mental images of your lost loved one, making minor tasks seem overwhelming and exhausting.

    In addition, you may experience gaps in memory and find it difficult to concentrate or focus on everyday tasks such as showering, brushing your teeth, or cleaning the dishes.

    However unpleasant these symptoms might be, they usually decrease over time, and you may notice your thoughts, memory, and attention to detail begin to improve slowly.

    In some cases, an individual may continue to experience cognitive issues and other grief symptoms, which, if left unaddressed, may lead to prolonged grief disorder.

    If you notice your grief symptoms do not improve over time or you are struggling to cope, you should speak to your physician or a mental health professional who can recommend next steps.

    2. Neuroplasticity

    Research has shown that grief can trigger various neuroplastic changes in the brain, altering specific neural connections and pathways that can change our perceptions and behaviour.

    When faced with trauma, the brain adapts by forming or altering connections between nerves based on the intensity and duration of our emotional responses. 

    This phenomenon, known as neuroplasticity, enables our brains to cope with illness, injury, loss, and other traumatic events by forging new neural pathways. 

    These adaptations help us adjust to unfamiliar situations and environments.

    Mild to moderate stress helps to foster nerve growth and enhances a person’s memory while mitigating fear. 

    However, prolonged stress impairs nerve growth, diminishes memory function, and heightens our fear responses, prioritising survival instincts over anything else.

    This chronic stress response can become embedded over time, shaping automatic behavioural patterns.

    Dr. Shulman emphasises that repetitive firing of neural circuits reinforces them, establishing default settings in the brain. 

    Prolonged grief can disrupt various cognitive functions, including memory, decision-making, spatial awareness, attention, verbal fluency, and our ability to process information.

    To facilitate brain healing following the loss of a loved one, Dr. Shulman suggests mindfulness practices and relaxation techniques, including:

    These methods can foster feelings of safety, stability, and tranquillity, enabling you to progress and build resilience over time.

    Dr. Shulman highlights the importance of addressing traumatic experiences such as grief and loss to prevent them from becoming persistent obstacles that hold you back or limit your potential.

    3. Emotional regulation

    White River Manor - Treatment in South Africa - Emotional Regulation

    Researchers found that grief can disrupt the brain’s ability to control or regulate emotions.

    As a result of this rewiring, grievers may experience heightened levels of anxiety, stress, irritability, and depression than non-grievers.

    Some researchers found that emotional regulation issues can occur due to a variety of challenges that grievers may face following the death of a loved one.

    These challenges include:

    • Disturbance of a specific life structure that normally regulates emotional responses or reactions.  
    • A loss of resources or support that an individual would ordinarily turn to to manage these disturbances.
    • A reliance on other people to provide what is lacking.

    Suppose you are struggling to regulate your emotions or find that you constantly feel depressed, anxious, or stressed following the death of a loved one. 

    In that case, it might be time to seek the help and support of a professional who can suggest various treatment options to help you cope more effectively with your loss.

    Please speak to one of our team members today to explore what treatment options would best suit you and your unique experiences of loss.

    4. Unhealthy coping mechanisms

    Very often, grief can have a profound influence on the development of unhelpful coping mechanisms, such as substance addiction or other dependencies like gambling or sex addiction.

    These coping mechanisms can shape how you process and adapt to your loss over time, often resulting in long-term changes in the brain’s neural circuits linked with coping skills and resilience.

    As well as using substances or engaging in specific behaviours to cope with the loss of a loved one, grievers may also use other ways of managing their grief, including:

    • Denial – refusing to acknowledge their grief or loss.
    • Overeating or not eating enough – for instance, you may use food as a distraction or to help numb or suppress your emotional pain.
    • Controlling or obsessive behaviours – controlling or obsessive behaviours can result from a lack of control you feel about a loved one’s death or other traumatic experience. You may seek to control other people or situations or obsess over minor details you usually wouldn’t.

    Most residential treatment centres diagnose and treat various types of addiction, including drug and alcohol abuse, gambling, sex or food addictions, and other compulsive behaviours that may occur due to grief.

    Contact our friendly team today for more support and information about our mental health and addiction services.

    5. Physical health complications

    Woman, anxiety and paper bag stress breathing on bed in house or home bedroom

    Grief, particularly prolonged grief, can produce adverse health effects on the brain, including:

    As if that’s not challenging enough, grief can also have a profound impact on our heart health and immune system, particularly if symptoms persist for longer than twelve months.

    Our stress response becomes highly activated throughout the grieving process, which can eventually turn into chronic stress if left unmanaged, where our nervous system gets into a chronic state of ‘fight or flight.’

    Depending on the severity of your emotional responses, your 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. (What Does Grief Do to Your Brain? PsychCentral, Traci Pedersen, 6 May 2022.)

    Things to look out for when you’re grieving

    As already mentioned, grief is a natural and healthy response to loss or a significant life change.

    We must allow ourselves adequate time to mourn as it can help us process our grief, which will enable us to come to terms with a particular change in circumstance or a loved one’s passing, leading to healthy reintegration, acceptance, and resilience over time.

    However, if you notice that your mood doesn’t improve with time or you feel as though you can’t cope or come to terms with your loss, you may be experiencing prolonged grief disorder.

    You must speak to a mental health professional if you experience any of the following signs or symptoms:  

    • Emotional numbness
    • Feeling as though life is meaningless
    • Extreme emotional pain from the loss, including severe anger or sadness
    • Constant avoidance of anything that reminds you of the death, including avoiding places, specific scents, people, or any other reminders
    • Identity impairment. For instance, you may feel as though a part of you died with your loved one
    • Trouble reintegrating back into everyday life after the loss. This can include failing to plan for the future or pursue interests or hobbies you once enjoyed

    White River Manor can help

    Woman sitting and contemplating at the beach

    Grief can deeply wound us, leaving us to deal with intense sorrow, confusion, disbelief, and an inability to see beyond the pain we are experiencing.

    However, in time, you can learn to process your grief and reflect on the good times you once shared with your loved one, integrating the loss into your life, which can lead to acceptance, resilience, and a new sense of self and wholeness.

    White River Manor provides personalised, comprehensive therapy and counselling programs to individuals in South Africa.

    Please get in touch with us for more information and support about our therapy and counselling programs, and let us be a part of your healing and transformation.

    We are here and ready to help.

    Additional resources

    1. What Does Grief Do to Your Brain? PsychCentral, Traci Pedersen, 6 May 2022
    2. How does grief affect the brain? Live Science, Joe Phelan, 8 January 2023