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The Neurological Impact of Grief

“Our grief is as individual as our lives.”

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

While losing a loved one is a universal experience, the intensity of loss can impact every individual emotionally and/or physically. Traumatic loss can come in many forms including serious illness or death of a loved one and the brain commonly responds similarly to emotional trauma or PTSD. And yes, grief is common but every individual experiences grief differently. Some individuals can find themselves in the depths of prolonged grief while others may find it easier to move on.

According to Neurologist Lisa M. Shulman, MD, traumatic loss is perceived as a threat in the brain, and it automatically defaults to protective survival and defiance mechanisms aka your brain is engaged in the fight or flight mechanism.

Once an individual is in the woes of fight or flight the brain’s main goal is survival so individuals will have the possibility of heightened blood pressure, faster heart rate, and the release of specific hormones. These effects on the brain can lead to changes in memory, behavior, energy levels, sleep, and body function, and can cause damaging effects on the immune system and heart.

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Grief can feel like an incredibly isolating time but more than 13 million are affected by grief annually. Look at some of the following stats just to put a firmer perspective on how common grief is.

The Prevalence of Grief

Stats gathered by the US Census, The Recovery Village, and WebMD

  • There are 2.6 million deaths per year resulting in 13 million grievers.
  • Around 5 people in mourning/per person passed.
  • A person dies every 15.2 minutes each day leading to 94.8 deaths a day.
  • Somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of grievers experience complicated grief.
  • 53% of people feel their grief has an expiration date.
  • 91% of these mourners felt expected to move on within a year.
  • 88% of people have emotional symptoms while grieving while only 68% have experienced physical symptoms of grief.
  • 7 to 10% of grieving adults will experience persistent symptoms of prolonged grief including: Identity disruption, Marked sense of disbelief about death, Avoidance of remains that the person has passed, Intense emotional pain, Difficulty with reintegration, Emotional numbness, Feeling that life is meaningless, Intense loneliness

Grief vs The Brain

In response to grief, the brain will create connections between nerves and then strengthen or weaken existing connections depending on the severity and duration of the traumatic emotional response. This response is neuroplasticity, which allows the brain to compensate for injury, illness, loss, or any other life-altering events that help an individual adapt to new situations or environments.

There are several areas of the brain that play a role in emotion such as the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex which are involved in emotional regulation, memory, multi-tasking, and learning. Prolonged grief can disrupt these cognitive domains of memory, decision-making, visuospatial function, attention, word fluency, and how fast an individual processes information.

Not only that but the flood of neurochemicals and hormones in your brain in response to grief can often be referred to as grief brain which can include symptoms such as:

  • Disturbed sleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Intense sorrow and sadness
  • Intense feelings of shock and loss
  • The inability to feel pleasure (anhedonia)
  • The inability to focus or concentrate
  • Physical aches: Headaches, Body aches, or muscle tension, Disorientation or confusion aka brain fog
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Individuals who have experienced traumatic loss have also commonly felt a neurological response when in situations that remind them of their loved one like going to their favorite restaurant, bringing them up in conversation, or hearing their favorite song. The response typically feels like a rising sense of anxiety or panic or even a wave of sadness by which you are overtaken. This can happen regardless of how long that traumatic loss was, and this is commonly a lingering effect of grief.

Moving Past Grief

Evidence shows that even long-term exposure to grief can be reversible with practices including cognitive behavior therapy, counseling, and other outlets for post-traumatic growth. These other outlets can include practicing self-care, volunteering, focusing on your physical health, practicing mindfulness, or finding a support group. Practices can vary based on what an individual needs and can be receptive to, but these practices should include strategies that allow feelings of safety, security, and overall calmness.

While we can anticipate how grief will affect us, grief is a complex response to loss that has the power to induce emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physiological changes. Just remember grief is natural and if you feel like you are isolated in prolonged grief, you are not alone. It is important to be gentle and patient with yourself as you navigate your new normal and as you heal, your thinking and cognitive functions will become more reliable. Just remember to reach out to someone if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of prolonged grief or grief brain.


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