Grieving is something almost everyone will experience at some point in their life. It can be overwhelming and confusing, and it can make the death of a loved one difficult to deal with. But when someone is grieving, what exactly happens to their brain?
According to Dr. Lisa M. Shulman (opens in a new tab)neurologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, our brain perceives 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 to [this] triggers a massive brain response that impacts many areas of the body,” she told Live Science. “We are used to seeing physical trauma as a threat, but severe emotional trauma has similar effects.
Dr. Lisa M. Shulman
Shulman is a neurologist specializing in Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders. She is the director of the Center for Movement Disorders at the University of Maryland. Previously, she served as Treasurer of the American Academy of Neurology and now serves on the Board of Directors.
According to Shulman, the brain reacts in the same way to different perceived threats. In other words, he has a default reaction that is triggered by any type of severe emotional trauma, whether related to bereavement, divorce, loss of a job, or involvement in a fight.
“The Amygdala [the brain’s center for emotions]deep in 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 puts the whole body on high alert – the heart races, the breathing rate increases and blood flow is increased to the muscles to prepare to fight or to flee.”
But Shulman said it’s not a standalone event when it comes to mourning. Instead, the days, weeks, and months are filled with reminders that trigger this response, causing the amygdala to become increasingly sensitized and hypervigilant.
“The primitive brain is enhanced at the expense of the advanced brain, which is the seat of judgment and reasoning,” she said. “The brain works overtime to respond to the threat of emotional trauma, invoking psychological defense mechanisms like denial and dissociation.”
Mary Frances O’Connor (opens in a new tab)associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, said there is also an important evolutionary element to how and why we endure grief.
“Grief as a response may have originally evolved as a response to separation,” she told Live Science. “In order to help us maintain our connections with our loved ones as we go to explore our world each day – like the kids going to school or your spouse going to work – powerful neurochemicals in the brain make us yearn for them and we reward when we come together.”
O’Connor is an associate professor of clinical psychology and psychiatry at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on the physiological correlates of emotion, in particular the wide range of physical and emotional responses during bereavement.
O’Connor notes that the death of a loved one is a very rare event and suggests that the brain often reacts as if the loved one is simply gone, rather than gone for good.
“The brain wants us to find them, or make such a fuss that they come find us,” she said. “It’s not necessarily conscious, although bereaved people often describe feeling that their loved one will just walk through the door one day.”
Come to terms with grief
People often say that time is a healer, but can grief have lasting effects on the brain?
“The emotional trauma of bereavement leads to profound changes in brain function due to repetitive stress from the fight or flight response and neuroplasticity, which is the remodeling of the brain in response to experience and changes in our environment. “, said Shulman, “Over time, these mechanisms result in a strengthening of the brain’s primitive fear center and a weakening of the advanced brain. [the cerebral cortex].”
These changes are long-lasting but can be reversed through therapy and post-traumatic growth, she added. Post-traumatic growth is a technique that allows individuals to find a way to give new meaning to their experiences in order to live their lives differently than before the trauma.
Dr. Uma Suryadevara (opens in a new tab)associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida, said that while certain events, places or dates can trigger a wave of grief, people’s brains eventually recover, although healing times differ from person to person. ‘other.
“As people heal, the brain forms new neural connections and compensates for the trauma,” Suryadevara told Live Science. “Some people experience ‘prolonged bereavement disorder’ where the symptoms last a very long time, but it’s usually not permanent.”
O’Connor suggested that grief can be viewed as a form of learning, and that this learning plays a role in both the acceptance of grief and the ability to perform daily tasks.
“Your brain tries to figure out all the situations where your loved one should be there, but it’s not,” she said. “I see it as a computer updating a program in the background. It can be very difficult to type a Word document while it’s running in the background, causing words to appear slowly on the screen I think the brain is similarly distracted when we’re trying to do simple tasks in life, and certainly when we’re trying to do complicated things.”
But that distraction and difficulty concentrating usually goes away over time, she added.
Understanding grief and the brain
Grieving is a complex response to loss. It includes emotional, cognitive, behavioral and physiological changes, which means that many parts of the brain are involved in generating the grief response. Suryadevara said research on the neuroscience of grief is still in its infancy.
“It’s further complicated by the fact that there may be different areas of the brain that show changes depending on the stage, symptoms and severity of grief,” she said. “For example, when a person remembers a deceased loved one and tries to process the emotions related to the loss, the posterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex are activated. In complicated grief where the person yearns for the deceased, nucleus accumbens [which mediates emotional and motivational processing] can be activated.
O’Connor also noted that while some aspects of grief are relatively well understood, there is still much to learn.
“We have very few studies of ‘mourning’ where the same person goes to an imaging center multiple times over several months so we can see changes in brain function,” she said. . “I’m really looking forward to seeing what we do to learn more about grief through future neuroimaging research.”