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.

What the Heck is Pranayama and How Can it Help You Reduce Stress?

We all know that stress isn’t good for us. But did you know that stress accounts for between 60% and 80% of visits to primary care doctors? The effects of chronic stress are also more than you may realize. Stress has been linked to accelerated biological aging, and increased chronic inflammation and oxidative stress, two processes that cause cellular and genetic damage. Scientists refer to chronic, low-grade inflammation in the body as “inflammaging.” Inflammaging has been associated with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, stress, depression, and a weakened immune system.

Two biomarkers in our blood that can be used to measure the level of chronic inflammation and stress in our body are cortisol and brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). High levels of cortisol is an indicator of high stress.  Brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is a naturally occurring protein in the body that regulates our brain’s plasticity and promotes brain development. People who have depression, anxiety, or Alzheimer’s disease have been found to have lower levels of BDNF.

Several recent studies suggest that pranayama (yoga breathing techniques), meditation and deep relaxation can slow the harmful physical effects of stress and inflammaging.

One published study found that 12 weeks of yoga slowed cellular aging. The program consisted of 90 minutes of yoga that included physical postures, breathing, and meditation five days a week over 12 weeks. The results found lower levels of inflammation and significantly decreased levels of cortisol in participants of the study. It also found higher levels of BDNF after the yoga program, suggesting that yoga could have potential protective effects for the brain as well.

Another recent study found that a three-month yoga retreat reduced inflammation and stress in the body. The yoga retreat incorporated physical postures, controlled breathing practices, and seated meditations. Participants did two hours of sitting meditation, one to two hours of moving practice, and one hour of chanting daily. Levels of protective anti-inflammatory markers increased after the retreat, while harmful pro-inflammatory markers decreased. Researchers also found that BDNF levels tripled. Participants felt less depression, less anxiety, and had fewer physical symptoms.

Not only do these studies suggest that yoga could slow down the harmful effects of chronic stress at both the psychological and physical levels,  it also indicates the benefits of a yoga practice that goes beyond yoga poses and incorporates yoga breathing techniques, meditation or deep relaxation.

Here’s a simple calming yoga breathing technique that can lower your stress levels. You can practice it for as little as one or two minutes at work or home.

Sit in a comfortable seated position, perhaps with your back supported by a wall.

Close your eyes, reminding yourself not to judge anything you’re doing.

Take a few slow breaths in and out.

Rest your left hand on your left knee.

Fold your ring finger and little fingers toward the palm on your right hand.

Place the index and middle fingers of your right hand in the middle of your forehead, between your eyebrows. You can also curl your index and middle finger toward your palm and rest them on your forehead if that feels more stable.

Exhale slowly through your nose, allowing your lungs to empty completely.

Close your right nostril with your thumb.

Inhale gently and slowly through your left nostril for 5 counts.

Press and close your left nostril with your ring and little fingers. Hold for 2 counts.

Lift your thumb to release your right nostril, and exhale slowly through your right nostril for 5 counts. Stay empty for 2 counts.

Inhale gently and slowly through your right nostril for 5 counts.

Press and close your right nostril with your thumb. Hold for 2 counts.

Release your left nostril, and exhale through your left nostril for 5 counts. Stay empty for 2 counts.

Start another cycle by inhaling through your left nostril. Continue to this pattern for 10 cycles. After you exhale from one nostril, remember to breathe in from that same nostril before switching.

It is a proven fact, breathing techniques are valuable to slow the harmful effects of stress and inflammation.  Try it for a week and see