A Neuropsychiatrist Explains Why Kobe’s Death Hurts Us So Much
On Sunday, January 26, my brain got hijacked. The shocking news that Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash slammed into my brain’s emotional centers, the limbic system, with a thud. As a lifelong Lakers fan and former season ticket holder, I had the privilege of seeing Kobe grow up on the basketball court and witnessed some of his most glorious achievements. I only met Kobe a few times, but my brain doesn’t care about that. Like millions of other Lakers fans, I felt like I knew him.
That’s what’s so strange about how our brains process the way we feel about icons. When we see the famous people we admire on television, at a sporting event, or at a concert, our brains can register it as a real friendship. That’s why, when tragedy strikes, we can experience profound grief, as if a loved one died.
Sadly, the news of the crash, which occurred on the way to Kobe’s Mamba Academy basketball facility, just kept getting worse. Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna “Gigi,” a basketball phenom in the making, also perished in the accident. So did 7 other people—baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife Keri, and their daughter Alyssa who was one of Gigi’s teammates; Sarah Chester and her basketball-player daughter Payton; Christina Mauser, a Mamba Academy basketball coach; and the pilot Ara Zobayan.
They all leave behind family members whose lives—and brains—will never be the same.
What Grief Does to the Brain
The unspeakable loss of a loved one fires up the limbic system, especially the amygdala, the almond-shaped structure on the inside of your temporal lobes involved in emotional reactions. When the amygdala remains overactive, it can impair our ability to get past the pain. The grief we feel can become part of the story of our lives, the way we view ourselves and our place in this world. For some people, these stories can rob us of joy, hold us back, and lead to depression.
My friend Dr. Sharon May, a world-renowned relationship psychologist, calls the stories that interfere with our lives “dragons from the past” that are still breathing fire on your amygdala, which can drive anxiety, anger, irrational behavior, and automatic negative reactions.
She says, “All of us have dragons from the past influencing our present feelings and actions.” Unless you recognize and tame them, and consciously calm and protect your amygdala from overfiring, they will haunt your unconscious mind and drive emotional pain for the rest of your life. What blows from an ember, or small action of another, can turn into a destructive fire of anxiety and rage.
That’s how I’m feeling right now—like a dragon is breathing fire on my amygdala and igniting all my inner anxieties, fears, and negative thoughts. I know it is going to take time to calm my brain so I can process the grief and heal.
Support the Healing Process
Here are 5 ways to calm the amygdala and support the grieving process:
- Find the upside: It may seem hard right now to think there could be an upside to a terrible tragedy like the helicopter crash that took the lives of Kobe, Gigi, and 7 others. But after a loss, some people decide to make important, positive changes to their lives. In the past few days, I’ve heard many people talking about how they’re going to incorporate Kobe’s “Mamba Mentality” into their daily lives—trying to be the best version of themselves at all times. For you, this might mean making health a greater priority, trying to make the most of the life you’ve been given, or showing more appreciation for the important people in your life.
- Start as soon as possible. People may tell you to wait to heal from grief, but if you fell and broke your arm, when would you want to start healing? Immediately!
- Keep a brain healthy routine. It’s especially important to eat brain healthy food, take supplements, exercise, and sleep. This is often the missing link in grief recovery. When people are in pain, they will often do nearly anything to stop it. Yet, overeating, binge drinking, smoking marijuana, and other habits may put a temporary Band-Aid on the negative feelings, but often prolong the pain.
- Reach out for social support. Therapy and support groups can be helpful if they help you build skills to overcome grief.
- When grief is prolonged or becomes complicated, get professional help. In people who are more vulnerable, grief can trigger depressive episodes.
Most people are able to overcome feelings of grief in time, but if you find yourself slipping into depression, Amen Clinics is here for you. If you need help, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.