Losing someone you’re close to can have a devastating impact on your emotional health. Here, we find out how our brain copes when faced with bereavement
Dealing with the fallout
When we lose someone close to us, it feels debilitating. Some symptoms of grief include anxiety, disorientation and irritability, but each individual processes the trauma in different ways. “Grief affects concentration, sleep, cognitive performance, appetite and even forgetfulness,” says psychologist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari (kalanitbenari.com). “The lack of sleep alone, or even disturbed sleep, has physical, cognitive and emotional consequences. And, as the brain manages the stress of loss or trauma, the survival mechanism of fight-or-flight response is activated.” But in addition to the initial stages of grief people experience when they lose a loved one, there are two more processes that can occur: anticipatory and secondary grief. According to mental health charity, Mind, anticipatory grief is “a sense of loss that we feel when we are expecting a death that does not necessarily reduce or make grief after the loss any easier, but can help prepare for the loss.” Secondary grief, meanwhile, can kick in when people experience a major life event after the loss of a loved one, sparking a second wave of sorrow.
When someone we love dies, it’s not unusual to feel a range of different emotions. This, in part, is due to the wave of neurochemicals that affect the brain. “Grief is associated with several changes to brain functioning and chemicals that lead to a sense of being overwhelmed, and feeling waves of intense anxiety, sadness, disorientation and confusion,” says Dr Ben-Ari. The two main parts of the brain that play a role in emotion include the limbic system (a set of structures in the brain) and the prefrontal cortex (the part that covers the frontal lobe). These are responsible not only for emotional regulation, but also for memory, multitasking and organisation.
“To avoid a situation of developing chronic stress or complicated grief (often perceived as a heightened state of mourning), we want to restore the neural pathways that have been overridden,” says Dr Ben-Ari. “Self-care practices – where you are mindful and kind to your body and soul – can have a big impact on your welfare. Pay attention to what you eat, drink and how you take care of yourself. Surround yourself with family, friends or a group of people who have experienced something similar and can offer comfort, support and connection. “Another way to help your brain deal with the trauma is to support your emotional processing, integration and self-regulation. You can do this by writing a journal, using art (in any form) to express your emotions, spending time in nature every day, and making sure you are physically active. If you are struggling, it’s important you reach out for therapy. Here, you can speak safely about how you feel to a bereavement counsellor, who can support you in making sense of your experience and help you to heal from the process.”