For quite some time, the experience of traumatic loss counts as a type of brain injury —according to neuroscience and neurology.
The grieving brain literally rewires itself — through a process called neuroplasticity — in response to emotional trauma, which has many effects on the brain and body.
The brain responds to different perceived threats in the same way — it has a default reaction that is triggered by any type of serious emotional trauma, whether that be related to grief, divorce, the loss of a loved one, or post-war.
After a loss, the body releases hormones and chemicals similar to a ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response. Multiple things can trigger this stress response which will ultimately remodel our brain’s circuitry.
Figuratively speaking, during this process, the brain turns itself upside down, prioritizing the most primitive functions — yup, to survive.
Then, as Amy Paturel writes for Discover Magazine, “the prefrontal cortex, the locus of decision-making and control, takes a backseat, and the limbic system, where our survival instincts operate, drives the car.”
According to a 2019 study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, grievers minimize awareness of thoughts related to their loss. The result: heightened anxiety and an inability to think straight.
According to Dr. Lisa M. Shulman, a neurologist at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine, our brains perceive traumatic loss as a threat to our survival.
“From an evolutionary perspective, our brains developed to preserve our survival, so anything perceived as a threat triggers a massive response from the brain that has repercussions for many regions of the body,” she told Live Science.
“We’re accustomed to thinking of physical trauma as a threat, but serious emotional trauma has similar effects.”
“The amygdala [the brain’s center for emotions], deep inside the primitive part of the brain, is always on the lookout for threats,” Shulman said. “When triggered, it sets off a cascade of events that put the entire body on high alert — the heart speeds up, breathing rate increases and blood circulation is increased to the muscles to prepare to fight or flee.”
The brain works overtime to respond to the threat of emotional trauma, summoning psychological defense mechanisms like denial and dissociation.
Mary-Frances O’Connor, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, said that there’s also a strong evolutionary element to how and why we endure grief.
“Grief as a response may have evolved originally as a response to separation,” said Mary-Frances O’Connor an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. “In order to help us maintain our connections to loved ones when we go and explore our world each day, powerful neurochemicals in the brain make us yearn for them, and reward us when we are reunited.”
O’Connor notes that the death of a loved one is a very rare event and suggests that the brain often responds as though the loved one is simply missing, rather than permanently gone.
“The brain wants us to find them, or make such a fuss that they come to find us,” she said. “This isn’t necessarily conscious, although bereaved people often describe the feeling that their loved one will simply walk through the door again one day.”
But this distractedness and difficulty concentrating usually resolve over time, O’Connor added.
Dr. Uma Suryadevara an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida, said that even though certain events, locations, or dates can trigger a wave of grief, people’s brains do eventually recover.
“As people heal, the brain forms new neural connections and compensates for the trauma,”
Grief is a complex response to loss. It includes emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physiological changes, which means many parts of the brain are involved in generating the grief response.
So, while some aspects of grief are relatively well understood, there is still much more to learn and research in the future.
Photo credit: EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC