Everyone deals with grief after the death of a loved one. This emotion can become overwhelming and debilitating in numerous ways. A lesser known phenomena is called grief brain. Experts describe it as your brain being overloaded with thoughts of grief, sadness, loneliness, etc. Grief brain affects memory, concentration, and cognition. Your brain is focused on the feelings and symptoms of grief, leaving little room for everyday tasks.1
What Is Grief Brain?
Many people refer to grief brain as grief brain fog. It can occur as a result of traumatic loss or complicated grief. As people try to make sense out of a significant loss like the loss of a child, loss of a parent, or loss of a grandparent, their brains struggle to process or move through the stages of grief.
Symptoms of grief brain include trouble focusing, depression, irritability, anxiety, and being overwhelmed. For example, someone with a grief brain may describe driving a car but may not remember how they got to a destination.
“Often grief is conceptualized as a cluster of demonstrated behaviors associated with coping after the death of a loved one. We expect to see crying, sadness, and short periods of social withdrawal from those who are bereaved. There are also short-term cognitive changes that occur when someone is grieving. These typically manifest shortly after the death and include difficulty concentrating, memory issues and changes in sleep patterns. A sense of ‘fogginess’ can be experienced along with a general lack of focus. Please note: this is entirely normal. Your brain is adjusting to the emotional impact of the loss and needs time to readjust and to heal. Grieving takes a LOT of energy and effort, and this “energy drain” impacts the brain’s ability to operate as it would under normal circumstances.” – Amy DeGurian, LSW
What Does Grief Do to the Brain?
Intensity of loss directly impacts the brain. Experts say that parts of the brain in grief are also involved in reward, which we know is important in creating bonds.2 Additionally, chronic stress reduces nerve growth and memory and increases fear. This stress response can have a negative impact. The more it occurs, the more it becomes “hardwired.”3
How Long Does Grief Brain Last?
Although there are universal symptoms associated with grief brain as outlined above, everyone experiences grief in their own way. There is no definitive time period associated with grief. However, it’s generally more challenging to recover from grief for people who have a history of depression.
Prolonged Grief Disorder
One expert says, “There is a very small proportion of people who have what we now call prolonged grief disorder, something we start looking for after six months or a year (after a death or loss)…and what we are seeing is that this person has not been able to function day to day the way that they wish they could.”4
Grief Brain Symptoms
Grief causes a flood of neurochemicals and hormones in your brain. A disruption in hormones can result in specific symptoms such as disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, fatigue, and anxiety.5
Grief brain symptoms include:
- Intense sorrow and sadness
- Feelings of shock and loss
- Anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure)
- Inability to focus or concentrate
- Headaches or body aches, muscle tension
- Lack of energy
- Disorientation or confusion also known as grief brain fog
The Severity of Grief May Be Tied to Mental Health
Grief researchers have discovered a link between mental health and the severity of grief that is experienced by an individual. They noted that someone with a preexisting psychiatric disorder is especially at risk for developing depression after the death of a close friend or family member.6 Grief experts have found that people diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD are at greater risk for prolonged grief.6
Situational factors such as sharing a home with the person who died, the suddenness of the death, and availability of support systems also play a huge role in how people cope with grief, and they greatly impact the longevity of grief symptoms.6
Can Grief Permanently Damage the Brain?
Grief does put stress on the mind and the body. Emotions like sadness, anger, anxiety, and depression can be challenging. Grief can also affect sleep, appetite, and the ability to focus and concentrate. The trauma of grief also can increase blood pressure and your heart rate.
There is no long term damage to the brain as you process your grief. Memory or cognition may be reduced because of the intense emotions created by loss and bereavement, but this is all reversible. The brain is capable of generating new connections (called neuroplasticity). The brain is resilient and grief causes no permanent or long-term damage to the brain.
How to Cope With Grief Brain
It will take time to understand how best to cope with the traumatic loss of a loved one. Coping mechanisms include journaling, connecting to a support group, engaging in self-care, seeing a therapist or counselor, and connecting with spirituality or faith.
DeGurian encourages, “It is important to be patient with yourself and to remember that these cognitive changes are short term and are part of the normal grief process. Everyone experiences loss but each of us mourn differently. Try to keep comparisons and expectations about how you ought to feel or what you should be doing to a minimum. The important thing is you are ‘doing’ and it will take a while for all the adjustments in everyday life to make better sense. Try not to ‘should’ on yourself…give yourself some grace, patience and understanding.”
Here are ten ways to cope with grief brain:
Writing down disturbing memories or dreams, reading them over, and annotating can help people become more aware of unprocessed thoughts, memories, and emotions. Journaling about your grief can help you rebuild positive neural connections.7
2. Get Support
Find a trusted friend, someone who is non-judgmental and a good listener, to share your feelings with. Consider connecting with a grief support group either in-person or online to reduce feelings of isolation. Talking about your feelings is an emotional release that can reduce stress and lessen the intensity of the negative emotions.
3. Engage in Self-Care
Incorporate self-care activities into your life to help heal your body and your mind. Examples of self-care activities include getting enough sleep, eating well, and including exercise as a regular part of your routine.
Meditation is a powerful healing technique for the mind and body. It keeps you in the present and can stop the continuum of ruminating negative thinking about past events. Meditation also regulates blood pressure, increases oxygen intake, reduces stress, and relaxes muscles.
5. Be Patient With Yourself
Tell yourself it’s OK to feel whatever you are feeling, and allow yourself the time you need to grieve. Practicing self-kindness is a way to care for and nurture yourself, which will help you move forward.
6. Get Counseling
Seek out mental health professionals to help you gain greater understanding about how your grief impacts you and your life. Therapists can help you to learn skills to cope with grief.
7. Identify, Reduce or Eliminate Stressors in Your Life
Identify unhealthy habits and relationships in your life and work to eliminate them. Examples include alcohol or drug use. These unhealthy stressors can increase blood pressure and create more stress and anxiety.
8. Challenge Your Negative Thought Patterns
Many people consciously or unconsciously have negative conversations with themselves that are filled with self criticism, irrationality, and self blame. This jeopardizes your emotional stability and undermines self confidence.
Increasing self awareness about messages we give ourselves is the first step. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is based on the idea that people have negative thought patterns that create destructive, negative patterns of behavior that harm relationships and quality of life. CBT teaches people to be aware of these negative thought patterns and look at their source. Understanding this distorted thinking and its origins can help to alter the negative thought patterns. Learning new coping skills can also change a cycle of negative thinking creating scenarios with more positive outcomes.
9. Make Something Meaningful Out of Your Grief and Loss
Many people find ways to turn their grief, pain, and loss into something meaningful that honors their lost loved one. For example, a family who loses someone in a school shooting may take on advocacy roles related to gun control issues. Someone else might set a grief ritual of visiting their loved one’s grave site on their birthday or anniversary.
10. Connect With Your Spirituality or Faith
Spirituality and faith both create connections and beliefs that link us to something greater than ourselves. Exploring these beliefs and values can be therapeutic and comforting. They can also help initiate healing.
When to Seek Professional Help
Consider grief counseling if the intensity and frequency of grief symptoms begin to negatively impact your relationships and ability to function. While grief and depression are different, it’s important to seek therapy if you begin experiencing symptoms of depression or thoughts of suicidal ideation.
DeGurian notes, “If over time symptoms don’t abate (or if they get worse) consider seeking short term, interventive support. Grief counseling can help mitigate the impact and confusion associated with this phenomenon.”
A therapist can help you learn your grief triggers and coping mechanisms. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to help reframe negative thought processes. If you’re ready to find a therapist, explore a free online therapist directory.
How to Support Someone With Grief Brain
It is hard to watch someone you care about who is in the midst of grief and at times you may feel helpless. They need time to process their grief and work through their feelings as they cope with a significant loss. However, there are concrete steps you can take that will help them through this process.
Here are some ways to help someone who is dealing with grief brain:
- The most important step is to be a good listener. Let them know you will be available when needed to listen without judgment.
- Don’t try to cheer them up or speed up their grief process. Saying things like “It is time to move on” will hurt not help a loved one. Each individual has their own timeline for grief and it cannot be altered or rushed.
- Make offers to help in concrete ways. For example, offer to buy groceries, help with the kids, or run errands. The less things a grieving person has to worry about, the more supported they will feel.
- It is tempting to offer advice. Your experience may not be the same so making comparisons may not be helpful. Don’t offer advice unless it is requested.
- If you feel comfortable doing it, be available to talk about the person who has died with the person grieving. Many people are uncomfortable talking about death and loss. A person that is grieving may need to talk about the person who has died.
Grief may not ever completely subside, but with time, the intensity and frequency of grief can lessen. If you find that the grief brain and the resulting symptoms aren’t subsiding, there are places you can turn to get help to make it more manageable. Remember, finding the path to healing is possible.