What Is Grief Brain and How to Overcome It

Grief is a common part of life. We grieve after the death of a loved one. We can also grieve the loss of a relationship or a job, a decline in health in ourselves or a loved one, or the loss of stability that accompanies a major life change.

When grief hits, it affects us deeply. We may experience memory problems, have trouble concentrating, or be wracked with sadness. That’s because grief impacts the brain and can lead to a condition known as “grief brain.”

When grief hits, it affects us deeply. We may experience memory problems, have trouble concentrating, or be wracked with sadness. That’s because grief impacts the brain and can lead to a condition known as “grief brain.” Click To Tweet

WHAT IS GRIEF BRAIN?

Grief brain is a term used to describe the neurological effects of loss on the brain. After a significant loss, the body triggers the release of neurochemicals similar to those involved in the fight-flight-or-freeze response.

In the following days, weeks, and months, reminders of the loss can re-ignite this chemical reaction. This grief response can rewire the brain in negative ways. The brain changes experienced during periods of grief involve several key regions, including:

  • Prefrontal cortex: This area is involved in executive functions, such as planning, judgment, impulse control, problem-solving, and decision-making. Grief effectively takes this region offline, suppressing your ability to think clearly and accomplish complex tasks.
  • Limbic system: This network of regions is considered the emotional center of the brain. It shifts into overdrive in times of grief, amplifying emotions like sadness, fear, and anxiety.

In the healthy brain, the limbic system provides the motivation you need to get things done. The prefrontal cortex gives you the mental horsepower to complete important projects. In the grieving brain, this system is turned upside down, robbing you of mental clarity while heightening emotions.

SYMPTOMS OF GRIEF BRAIN

Grief brain can lead to an array of cognitive, emotional, and physical symptoms, such as:

  • Cognitive symptoms: Brain fog, confusion, forgetfulness, spaciness, and an inability to concentrate are common.
  • Emotional symptoms: Some people may feel depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or a loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed. According to a scientific review published in World Psychiatry, grieving people can also experience everything from shock, anger, fear, and guilt to loneliness, depersonalization, and overwhelm. 

People can even feel shame about or fear of their own emotions. And they may then try to stuff them down to avoid feeling as deeply—which, unfortunately, makes the problem worse.

  • Physical symptoms: Some individuals may experience sleep issues, changes in appetite, feelings of numbness, or a weakened immune system.

Intense grief can even become life-threatening. For example, it can lead to self-neglect or stir up suicidal thoughts.

TYPES OF GRIEF

Today, we know that grief can wear many faces—and that it’s anything but straightforward or linear. Here are some lesser-known types of grief:

  • Complicated grief, also called prolonged grief disorder, occurs over longer periods of time than expected. It interferes with one’s daily life and creates intense symptoms, even years after a loss. According to research, an estimated 7%-10% of grieving individuals develop this form of grief, which involves profound yearning.
  • Ambiguous grief, also called ambiguous loss, refers to loss that doesn’t have closure. This can be felt when a loved one goes missing, for example.
  • Collective grief is experienced on a large scale across communities. Examples include the upheaval of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, in times of war, or after natural disasters.
  • Anticipatory grief, also called preparatory grief, happens when we are expecting a loss that hasn’t yet taken place. For example, anticipating the death of a family member who is terminally ill.
  • Disenfranchised grief is that which is not generally recognized or given attention by society. Because of this, the person grieving may not fully process or receive help for the strong emotions that can accompany a loss.

GRIEF BRAIN CAUSES

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines grief as “the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person….[causing] physiological distress, separation anxiety, confusion, yearning, obsessive dwelling on the past, and apprehension about the future.”

This type of grief is a primary cause of grief brain. However, grief brain can also surface as a result of form of loss. Here are some common causes of grief brain, some of which may be overlooked or not treated as seriously as they deserve:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Losing a relationship (including friendship, divorce, infidelity, a breakup, etc.)
  • Relocating to a new city or leaving home
  • Losing a child through miscarriage or struggling with infertility
  • Losing a job or retiring
  • Death of a pet
  • Estrangement or separation from a family member, such as in the case of addiction or incarceration
  • Bankruptcy or financial instability
  • Loss of an identity
  • Decline in health, personally or for a loved one

These are only some examples that can lead to grief brain. We are all uniquely affected by loss and change. And, as with emotional trauma, we all respond differently. However, the more coping tools and strategies we have, the better we will fare over time.

6 TIPS FOR OVERCOMING GRIEF BRAIN

If you’re experiencing grief brain, take the time to work through the loss and cope in healthy ways. Here are six suggestions to start you on the path to healing from any type of loss of any kind:

  1. Encourage sound sleep.

Suffering from insomnia is common in the wake of loss. Try supplements such as melatonin, vitamin B6, magnesium, GABA, 5-HTP, and theanine. And always practice the core tenets of sleep hygiene to promote full-body restoration.

  1. Reach out for help.

There are many ways you can work through your grief in safe spaces with understanding professionals or peers. Consider talking to a loved one, a psychotherapist, or another type of mental health professional. You can also call a crisis hotline or join a bereavement group.

  1. Confront your feelings.

Acknowledge and validate your feelings. Write a letter to an estranged loved one, then burn or bury it. Journal about your feelings surrounding a job loss.

Create an album with photos of your deceased pet. Channel your emotions into a painting or song. Let yourself take whatever steps feel most restorative to you.

  1. Get moving.

Exercising and spending time in nature can be wonderfully renewing for the brain, body, mind, and spirit. Other movements, like dance, can expel excess energy in the body and allow us to physically work through feelings like anger and frustration. 

  1. Seek customized treatment.

Grief brain can be misdiagnosed as a variety of psychiatric conditions, and sufferers can be prescribed medications they don’t need. A brain SPECT scan helps obtain a clearer picture of any underlying brain health issues, enabling a more effective, customized treatment plan.

  1. Be patient.

Working through grief is not a one-and-done procedure, nor is it predictable. As exhausting as it can be to feel difficult and tumultuous emotions, understand that the grieving process is normal and helping you heal. Above all, to practice self-compassion in the aftermath of loss.

 

Prolonged or complicated grief, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

4 Comments »

  1. This is a really excellent article. One of your best. Thank you. Dr. Dharma

    Comment by Dr. Dharma — January 22, 2024 @ 12:24 PM

  2. Great article

    Comment by Dr. Dharma — January 22, 2024 @ 12:29 PM

  3. Interesting! Can this cause Frontotemporal dementia? Or can FTD and grief brain be confused with each other?

    Comment by Sharon Mitchel — January 22, 2024 @ 2:01 PM

  4. Thank you for this article on grief. Having gone through extreme grief,( had 7 of those listed at one time). A few counselors didn’t have the experience or training in grief . I had a long road and great heart ache to heal from summons losses . Appreciate your clinic is there to address and explain , so no one has to walk this journey alone,( and told to “take a bath”, light a candle “ as a solution).

    Comment by Linda Larson — January 22, 2024 @ 2:51 PM

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