Grief in the Brain and Body

Lesson objective:

There are certain brain areas that are active during the experience of loss and eventually grief. In this lesson, we further understand the various responses to loss such as trauma, stress, fight or flight responses, numbness and freezing, or the appearance of grief as an overwhelming sadness. In addition, we explain the relationship between grief and stress; in addition to the physical, neurological and cognitive changes that are caused by grief.

Grief is the brain’s automatic and involuntary response to loss. 

Losing an object is frustrating and even sad. Losing a person is far worse. When you lose someone you love, specific areas of the brain activate. 

Many structures in t  he limbic system, including the amygdala, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula are activated by emotional pain, including grief. 

The pain caused by the loss of a loved one can elicit a similar response as other forms of trauma. Indeed, initial grief is often felt as a traumatic shock or even disbelief.

News of death is a shock to the system that can stimulate any of the fight, flight, or freeze responses discussed earlier. 

When a loved one dies, you lose a relationship that sustained you in some way. You lose someone who helped keep you alive, even if in an abstract way. Naturally then, the brain interprets this loss as a form of threat or stress. 

For some, the initial shock of death may be met with numbness. Some people may emotionally freeze.

For many people, grief manifests itself as an overwhelming sadness, a sadness that is felt in the body. A sadness that is slow and consuming, and can lead to exhaustion. 

In this way, the effects of grief are similar to the effects of chronic stress insofar as they can affect the physical body over time. 

Additionally, it is common for those who have lost a loved one to long for the deceased, to feel a sense of bitterness, or to feel anger.

All of the common symptoms of grief reflect the brain’s automatic processes of distress and loss. Grief and stress share many physiological impacts in the body. Loss and grief are forms of stress, so it makes sense that grief and stress share basic impacts.

Beyond its markers in the brain, grief has been shown to weaken the immune system as it decreases the neutrophils, which are white blood cells that play a role in infection prevention.

The change in white blood cells is especially significant amongst the elderly populations. Evidence suggests that the physiological effects of grief can cause illnesses and even heart attacks, which are more common in elderly individuals after the loss of a loved one.

Just like with trauma, no two people grieve the same way. No two people feel the effects of grief the same way, or in the same places. And there is no specific timeline for a cycle of grief.

The expectations of grief vary from culture to culture, from family to family. For some, grief is expected to last a certain period of time and be displayed publicly in order to give proper respect to the deceased. 

For others, grief, especially loud, emotional, anguished grief, is expected to be reserved for private, and brave, stoic, strong faces are expected in public. 

Ending the cycle of grief does not mean forgetting the person who has died. Ending the cycle of grief does not necessarily mean feeling happy again. Specific moments and memories that remind you of the deceased may always cause momentary discomfort or sadness.