The Grief Brain: How Your Mind Deals With Partner’s Death and How to Heal
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Grief is a universal human experience that a lot of people will go through at some point in their lives. But this doesn’t make the experience any easier.
It takes time and patience, and less commonly known is that the brain plays a part. It activates the body’s natural mechanism to deal with the unexpected loss of loved ones — essentially becoming the “grief brain.”
In this article, we’ll closely examine what happens to the brain during grief, how our minds deal with loss, how grief affects the brain, healthy coping mechanisms, and, importantly, heal the grief brain.
What is a grief brain?
What does grief do to your brain?
Grief brain, also known as grief brain fog, is the term used to describe the mental and emotional aftereffects of our body’s response to the loss of a loved one.
According to researcher and author Mary-Frances O’Connor, grief is connected to various distinct brain functions. From how we recall memories to regulating our heartbeat and how we experience pain and suffering.
Grief can be very tough and overwhelming. The science of grief indicates that some of us may struggle with memory, concentration, decision-making, and other cognitive tasks.
In order to cope with this, we have developed the grief brain. And the science of it all suggests that in the face of grief, our bodies react in a similar natural – predetermined way, even as we experience it differently.
What happens to your brain when you lose your partner?
Comprehensive research on grief shows that following the loss of your loved one, your brain becomes overburdened with thoughts of grief, sadness, loneliness, and negative emotions. The grief brain kicks into effect, impacting your concentration, cognition, and so on.
“Can grief cause memory loss” is a common question. While there is no concrete scientific evidence to affirm a relationship between grief and memory loss, people have been known to lose their memory when grieving.
More specifically, your body’s fight flight or freeze instinct kicks in, releasing a flood of hormones and neurochemicals into the bloodstream, which then travels all over the body, including the brain.
Due to the erratic production and supply of these hormones and neurochemicals, the brain flips and prioritizes the more fundamental functions.
The effects of grief on the brain can be traced to the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and autonomous control, which becomes relegated to the passenger seat. The limbic system, where all your survival instincts reside, becomes the new control center.
Every day, when you remember your partner’s demise — the memory of your partner’s loss and constant reminders of their absence, such as their favorite food or TV show, trigger this stress response until it becomes your brain’s new baseline.
As Helen Marlo, a professor of clinical psychology at Notre Dame de Namur University in California, explains — our brains struggle to understand the circumstances surrounding the passing of a loved one. They may even make up explanations for it.
In the thick of it, this might send us down a rabbit hole of “what ifs” and “if onlys.” Only with time and intentionality can grief catalyze growth and transformation.
5 physical and emotional symptoms of grief brain?
Grief brain does not only manifest emotionally. The truth is both our bodies and minds can be impacted by grief.
Each of us is affected differently depending on the level of stress we’re experiencing. You might experience it.
Grieving almost always comes with tiredness. The intense feelings of loss can cause physical tension and drain the body’s energy levels, leading to fatigue.
Like most other physical symptoms, exhaustion usually comes in waves; at this moment, you are feeling okay, and at the next, far from.
Related Reading: What Is Emotional Exhaustion?
2. Sleep disturbances
Grief-related psychological stress can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep, resulting in insomnia or other sleep disturbances.
A 2020 study found that people who have lost a loved one experience sleep disturbances 20–33 percent more frequently than those who have not.
People who are grieving may also experience dreaming differently than before their loss; dreams could become more vivid and filled with nightmares.
Watch this video to learn more about how sleep affects your emotional health.
3. Changes in appetite
Often, how your brain copes with grief is by causing changes in appetite. Some people may lose their appetite, lose interest in food, or eat altogether. Others may use food to cope with their emotions — stress eating — leading to increased appetite or cravings.
Also, It’s not unusual to experience physical symptoms like nausea and digestive problems, which can also affect appetite.
Grief hallucinations are typically audio-visual. When a person experiences grief hallucinations, they believe they can see, hear, touch, or sense the presence of their loved ones.
These hallucinations happen unexpectedly, either when someone is awake or asleep, and are more common in the early stages of grief.
While some may find comfort in them, a 2018 study indicates that grief hallucinations might be more common in people with higher levels of psychological distress.
5. Emotional, social, spiritual, and cognitive effects
Grief brain can manifest emotionally, socially, physically, and cognitively.
A person may initially experience shock or denial after losing a loved one. They might later go through bouts of
- Fear or anxiety
- Mentally, they may go through;
- difficulty making decisions
- thoughts about the person’s death
- a shift in their sense of self
- difficulty concentrating
Socially, a grieving person could become agitated, withdrawn, or lonely in social situations.
It is important to note that grief symptoms can be similar to the symptoms of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. These conditions can exist concurrently with the grief brain.
One of the critical differences between mental health conditions and grief is that the grief brain symptoms are not constantly occurring. Instead, they alternate periods where you feel better and when you feel worse.
How does it impact daily life and relationships?
The grief brain can impact our daily lives and relationships in many ways.
It is also important to mention that the mourning process and how our brains generally cope with grief are unique.
Our coping styles, what set of beliefs we hold about the end of life, the circumstances surrounding our loss, and whether or not a support system is present all play a part in how we grieve our loved ones.
The following are some ways it can impact life and relationships:
1. Everyday lifestyle radically changes
The impact of grief in our daily life can be overarching. After the initial shock settles and the psycho-physical symptoms such as fatigue, change in appetite, insomnia, and others begin to appear, our ability to function and carry out our usual activities suffer.
Completing simple tasks around the home may now become overwhelming or take long hours. Your basic, efficient work-life balance and positive coping mechanisms, and capacity to handle stress vanish.
Spacing out might become a new normal. You may lose your keys, wallet, glasses, phone, or other items more frequently, only to find them later in unexpected places (like the TV remote in the refrigerator or aluminum foil in the laundry room).
Don’t worry; all these reactions are normal. In the meantime, your brain is preoccupied with the feelings and symptoms of grief, leaving little room for daily tasks.
2. Relationships will change
The tug of war between grief and the brain puts a tremendous strain on our existing relationships because it temporarily changes who we are as a person as we try to come to terms with our loss and figure out how to move on.
Close friends and loved ones may temporarily distance themselves from you because they struggle with your grieving process.
They may be accustomed to seeing you as a pillar of strength, so seeing you in this vulnerable state (along with possibly having to deal with their grief) becomes too much for them to bear.
It is easy to forget that how we all process grief differs, especially with the uniqueness of our relationship with the deceased.
We might find that close friends and family who we expected to be present during one of the most challenging times of our lives may not be present in the way we’d hoped or expected.
Some people seek comfort and understanding from distant family members, friends, or acquaintances.
Another thing you should know is that grief will alter our relationships. But as everyone affected by the loss learns to live with the loss over time, we can also hope for some semblance of normalcy.
In the long run, couples counseling can be invaluable after you’ve grieved the loss of your partner and are ready to open your heart to love again. It’ll help you navigate a residual grief-free relationship with your new partner.
5 strategies for healing the grief brain when you lose your partner
Here are five healthy strategies to cope with the grief brain ensuing from losing our heart’s dearest.
When we engage in physical activities like exercising, our body releases endorphins, also known as the body’s feel-good chemicals or natural mood boosters.
With high levels of endorphins circulating in the body, it becomes easier for the body to counteract increased stress and anxiety levels and the negative feelings brought on by grief.
A 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health analyzed the effect of exercise on our psychological well-being.
Specifically, it was found that exercise was associated with reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, improved mood and self-esteem, and increased well-being and vitality.
Related Reading: 7 Reasons Why Exercising Together Will Improve Your Relationship
Meditation is an age-old art that has been practiced for thousands of years.
Since its earliest origins in ancient India, mindfulness art has been associated with spirituality, personal growth, stress reduction, and improved mental and physical health.
In 2014, a team of researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 47 randomized controlled trials that examined the effects of meditation programs on symptoms of anxiety, stress, and depression.
The meta-analysis showed that meditation programs were associated with a small but significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress.
During meditation, our body enters a state of deep relaxation, and there is increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive function, decision-making, and attention.
At the same time, the activity of the amygdala, which is responsible for processing emotions and generating the “fight or flight” response, reduces significantly. This process directly undoes the brain’s natural rewiring action to the grief brain.
Therapy provides a non-judgmental and supportive space where people can feel heard, understood, and validated.
Therapy aids in the relief of grief brain emotional symptoms such as anxiety and depression. A study published in the journal JAMA psychiatry in 2013 provides strong evidence for the effectiveness of therapy in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.
When the feeling of loss peaks and becomes overwhelming, therapy can provide the tools and coping strategies to help you manage your emotions and adjust to life without your partner.
Seeing a mental health professional for grief and loss can help you process your feelings and learn new coping strategies — all in a safe environment.
4. Spend time with others
Despite how appealing it might be to stay home (or in bed), resist the urge. Being alone at home will cause us to concentrate more intensely on grief.
Spending time with others, going outside, and engaging in activities helps keep our minds off our grief.
5. Take time
Dealing with the grief brain is more of a marathon than a sprint. Take your time.
There will be times when you believe you are finally in a good place, only to find yourself feeling bad again. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s how grief works. You can loop back to a previous low, but you’re still moving forward.
It is fine long as you stay true to the process, keep going, and don’t stop.
More on how your mind deals with partner’s death
Here are some of the most asked questions related to dealing with your partner’s death.
Can grief permanently change your brain?
No. While grief can indeed rewire the brain, changes made are only temporary. They are generally reversible and tend to resolve as the grieving process progresses.
Can you fully recover from grief?
The grieving process can be painful and take time to heal fully. But yes, you can fully recover from grief.
“Fully recovering” from grief doesn’t necessarily mean we will forget about our beloved or stop feeling sadness altogether.
Instead, it could mean that we’ve moved on with our lives, finding joy and meaning in other areas and remembering our loved ones in a way that brings comfort rather than overwhelming pain.
How long does grief last after losing a partner?
“How long does grief brain last” is no easy question to answer.
Healing after losing a partner happens gradually. No set timeline is considered normal — It can’t be rushed or forced for how long it takes to recover fully.
For some, lingering grief for losing a partner could last for weeks or months. For others, the time
could well be measured in years.
One way or another, grief leaves its mark on each and everyone one of us. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with grief, practicing self-care and reaching out for support when needed can help. No matter how painful and sad it feels, Remember — you are not alone, and healing is possible.
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