What grief does to your brain

Caring for communities

It’s common to notice changes in your thoughts, emotions and behavior after losing a loved one. Many people report feelings of brain fog or loss of memory, but you may find yourself wondering what exactly grief does to your brain.

What is grief?

Grief is the emotional and natural reaction that comes after the loss of a loved one. Oftentimes while experiencing grief or undergoing the grieving process, people may feel psychological distress such as anxiety, confusion, or that they can’t stop dwelling on the past, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

While grief is a universal emotion, there is not a specific timeline to it and each person processes grief differently. In fact, feelings of grief can change over time without really ever going away.

And although most people think of grief as only a sad experience, grief expert Mary-Frances O’Connor, PH.D., sees it as a learning experience for your brain as well.

“[…] After we experience something as difficult as our one and only passing away, we really have to figure out: How do I live in the world now?” she said in an episode of the APA’s podcast Speaking of Psychology. “Part of it is learning to be in the world as a person who carries this absence with them, but even at a smaller level, you can think about all the tiny little habits that we have to change. This is that feeling of the experience of picking up the phone to call them because something has happened. Then of course, realizing that we can’t call them. All those little habits and predictions that we have to learn in a new way.”

An older woman holds her head in her hand, signifying the effects that grief can have on the brain

What grief does to your brain

In addition to learning new habits and routines, O’Connor says the brain rewires after we lose someone.

“Well, to think about what happens when we lose a loved one, you have to first recognize that the brain encodes a bond,” she said. “When you fall in love with your spouse or with your child, the brain encodes this bond. Essentially, it creates a ‘we’, not just a ‘you’ and a ‘me’, but it creates a ‘we’ of overlapping experience. Because of that then, when a loved one is no longer there, we actually experience it as part of us is missing, right? At a very neural and coded level, our representation of the ‘we’ has a hole in it.”

The effects of grief on the brain in rodents

This neural coding has been proven in research experiments as well. At the University of Colorado-Boulder, Zoe Donaldson ran a rodent experiment that helped investigate what happens to the brain when a mate goes missing.

The study found that when bonds between mates are formed in the brain, there are actual changes to how proteins are folded in the nucleus accumbens, which is the part of the brain that connects motivation and action. This means that this entire reward network of the brain is changed based on the certain bonds made with mates.

As time passes, neurons fire when approaching that certain mate, and they learn to fire more often, giving pleasure from experiencing that bond. In the same vein, when that mate is separated, the brain is missing the pleasure from the neurons firing.

The sudden lack of pleasure can cause an increase in stress hormones, leaving happy hormones, like dopamine and oxytocin, to try to motivate an organism to find their mate again. But in the case of the rodents, they are separated and can no longer get back to each other. This leaves a discrepancy and yearning for the mate.

Although human brains are larger and more complex, this study does explain how the brain has to change and update overtime as we get used to a life without our loved one. Reference the full study here.

Additionally, grief can be tied to a few different brain functions. These include recalling of memories, understanding other’s perspectives and even things like regulating our heart rate. When experiencing grief, these functions may become limited or impacted. This phenomenon is often referred to as having “grief brain.”

What are the effects of grief brain?

Each person will have a different reaction to grief and may experience different effects. Generally, the brain reacts to grief in similar ways as it reacts to chronic stress.

According to PsychCentral, this can leave your brain in a long-term survival mode with effects of:

  • Released fight-or-flight hormones
  • Increase in heart rate
  • More blood flowing to emotional and fear-based parts of your brain instead of higher thinking regions

As grief progresses and one’s brain is continuously reminded of their loved one, the stress response is triggered over and over. This builds strong pathways for feelings of chronic stress.

As these pathways grow stronger overtime, grief may cause someone to experience difficulties in the following areas, according to PsychCentral:

  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Decision-making capabilities
  • Ability to express yourself with words
  • Information processing speeds
  • Cognitive functions relying on movement and depth perception

Please note, if any of your symptoms are severe, or you have any sudden numbness, confusion, trouble speaking or understanding, trouble seeing in one or both eyes, trouble walking, dizziness or loss of balance, or a sudden severe headache with no known cause, call 911 and seek immediate medical attention.

Grief and bereavement resources

Despite best efforts to cope with grief, you or a grieving loved one may still feel persistently sad, anxious, unable to sleep, irritable or hopeless. If these feelings last for a while and begin to impact daily activities, schedule time to talk to a physician or a mental health professional.

Grief recovery and grief support groups are available in many communities and accessible through a quick online search. For more information on the grief process and additional resources, you can visit this comprehensive grief support list from the Hospice Foundation of America or the APA’s website.

Enhabit Home Health & Hospice typically provides bereavement services for up to 13 months after a patient’s passing, with the ability to receive extended support if needed. Please reach out to your loved one’s hospice care team to connect with bereavement specialists.

Social Share