Dr T K Munshi
What happens in the brain if someone you love dies — and how to overcome it with time. Scientists are increasingly viewing the experience of traumatic loss as a type of brain injury. The brain rewires itself – a process called neuroplasticity – in response to emotional trauma, which has profound effects on brain, mind and body. In her book, neurologist, Lisa Shulman, of the University of Maryland School of Medicine has cogently dealt with grief, mourning, causes and remedies.
The grieving brain : After a loss, the body releases hormones and chemicals reminiscent of a “fight, flight or freeze” response. Each day, reminders of the loss trigger this stress response and intimately remodel the brain’s circuitry. The pathways relied on for most of our life take some massive, but mostly temporary detours and the brain shifts upside down, prioritizing the most primitive functions. The prefrontal cortex, the locus of decision-making and control, takes a backseat, and the limbic system, where our survival instincts operate, drives the car. According to a 2019 study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, grievers minimize awareness of thoughts related to their loss.
The result: heightened anxiety and inability to think straight.
There are instances when a brilliant mathematician who could calculate complex algorithms in his head, turned into a childlike dependent, searching for words he couldn’t find. Many a time one fumbles to find words for common objects like lemon or cantaloupe or blank on ones own telephone numbers. People who are grieving may lose their keys several times a day, forget who they are calling mid-dial and struggle to remember even good friends’ names.
Research shows these cognitive efforts are more pronounced among people who have complicated grief, a condition that strikes about ten percent of bereaved people and is marked by an intense yearning for the deceased. People with complicated grief experienced greater cognitive decline compared to those with less complicated grief response.
The grieving mind : Research suggests our experience of loss – whether muted or traumatic – is mediated by relationships that reside in mind. Each of us responds to grief differently, driven by relational patterns that we lay down early in life, as well as the intensity and the experience of grief is unique to the individual. It’s worth grasping amidst ones grief that the brain and the mind, while inextricably linked, are completely separate entities. Grieving is a protective process. ” It’s an evolutionary adaptation to help us survive in the face of emotional trauma” — Shulman writes in her book. How do we hear an emotionally traumatized brain ? We have to embrace the changes that are happening in the brain, instead of thinking we are losing our mind, says Marlo.
Finding a way forward : As with any injury, an emotionally traumatized mind requires a period of recovery and rehabilitation. We don’t return to our usual activities immediately after heart surgery, yet somehow we expect a bounce.
Our brains struggle to process the death of a friend or family member back after the mind scrambles of losing a loved one. ” With grief, the mediator between the right and left hemispheres of brain – the thinking and feeling parts – is impaired,” explains Marlo.
Shulman further writes in her book, ” One way to heal is to reflect on the relationship with the deceased and work to hold both the love and the pain.” For some that means wrapping themselves in a beloved’s T-shirt or quilt, visiting the county, creating a photobook or video life with their loved ones. Connecting the loss with behaviors and activities helps the grieving brain to integrate thoughts and feelings.
The mourning mind : The neurologist Lisa Shulman narrates how stalling humming birds in her backyard where her dad loved to watch their ‘tireless pursuit of happiness’, when they flutter around her, she could almost sense his presence.
That is what a mourning mind is supposed to live with — realities of life.
Dr T K Munshi