Grief Happens in the Brain: Healing After Loss

The human condition is complicated and sometimes painful. In times of loss, in particular, it is especially hard to cope and work one’s way through the stages of what we know as grief. In technical terms, grief is “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.”

In essence, grief is your brain trying to recover from the shock and disorientation that comes with loss and extreme change; in other words, your brain is trying to look out for you. Your body begins to experience deep biological responses to the painful circumstances, physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Just as chemicals and hormones are released in times of joy and excitement, so are chemicals and hormones released and bodily systems shifted in times of sorrow.

These responses begin in the brain.

Emotional Pain in the Brain

When the brain is going through grief, it experiences increased activity in the regions responsible for processing physical pain and emotions: the insula, anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala, posterior cingulate cortex, and prefrontal cortex. In the case of prolonged grief, pain actually accompanies the brain’s reward-process centers, meaning it reinforces (in a sense) the yearning for the lost loved one, almost creating an “addiction.” This is seen when grief persists and even disrupts everyday life.

The effects of grief can also be seen in increased cortisol levels, a hormone mainly released in times of stress–a major part of the grief response as a whole. As a result of excessive cortisol, the prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotions and memories, appears to shrink. This typically affects one’s ability to concentrate, recall things, and articulate or express feelings. Instead, expressing one’s feelings or desires in times of mourning can actually become difficult or even exhausting. Maintaining a normal level of this hormone is essential to human health, but if it remains high, it can take grief to a more prolonged or serious condition, like depression or anxiety.

That’s why it’s very important to be aware of all of the above as it relates to grief’s impact on the human body and mental state. It’s even more important that we treat ourselves kindly through the grieving process.

Appetite and Exercise in Mourning

While grief has its place in the brain, it also has its place in the body and mind. It all comes down to stress. Stress responses require attention in order to aid in healthy healing. Through the grieving process, make your physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual healths top priorities.

During the grieving process, it’s common to lose one’s appetite, overeat in pursuit of comfort, or even experience gastrointestinal issues as a result of grief’s major stressors. In this time, it’s very important to help yourself eat healthy foods that will not only comfort you but also keep your energy up, strengthening communication between brain cells.

Accompanied with eating right (occasional pizza and ice cream are acceptable, of course), exercise (even if mild) is a major help in healing from grief. Being active in some way, especially out in nature, can release neurotransmitters such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and more, which are central to mood control and may help you fight feelings of depression. Meanwhile, it also helps relieve other symptoms of grief, such as anxiety, pain, lack of sleep, fatigue, and more. This can come in the form of a brief 10-minute walk, if that’s all a person can manage–any bit of movement helps.

Grief: The Sleep Thief

Sleep disorders may crop up in certain stages of grief. Try to take measures that will make you adequately restful by bedtime. That might mean setting some daytime or bedtime practices for yourself, such as no napping in the late afternoon or evening; developing a bedtime routine, in which you read a book or wind down with a bath; keep your bedroom at the right temperature, not too hot or cold; try to avoid electronic devices right before bed; use low lighting in the evenings; exercise at regular times each day (again, even if it’s a 15-minute stroll); stay away from caffeine late in the day; and try to avoid alcohol, for it may actually make it more difficult to stay asleep and can also destroy brain cells (you really need those).

Social Support As You Grieve

Because we are emotionally exhausted during this time, it’s difficult to express our needs. This is when social interaction and support crucially comes in to play. Having those around you who know you best and love you will encourage your healing and provide you the support you need to take it one step at a time. This doesn’t mean forcing yourself to be social; it means simply having loved ones nearby who understand and are there for you.

Be Patient. Healing Takes Time.

Ultimately, take it easy on yourself. Healing from loss takes time, and that’s all you can do: wait and treat yourself kindly. Remember that those around you should also understand that this grieving process takes time; that way, you don’t feel needy or rushed in the stages, which can lead to unearned guilt. Allow yourself to move through all of this organically.

Never feel selfish for grieving. As mentioned, grief is your body and brain’s natural approach to healing from something incredibly painful; let them do their job for you. Then, do your job in aiding your body and brain to heal by loving yourself, getting the sleep you need, eating as well as you can, and seeking support from others around you to combat any feelings of loneliness or ruminating thoughts.

In the end, you are not alone. Everyone in the world experiences grief at some point; let us all support each other through it and let ourselves grow from it.

This article was originally authored by Leigh Richardson and posted on Prime Women. Read the article here.

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