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A hand being held, whilst sat on the couch.

Grief and the Brain

Roger Miller Clinical Psychologist Aviv Clinics by Roger Miller, PhD , Clinical Psychologist
February 23, 2022
A hand being held, whilst sat on the couch.

Experiencing grief after loss is natural, but it can lead to lasting damage to the brain and body if it remains unresolved. Understanding its impact and developing healthy coping strategies can help to not only manage grief, but also keep your brain functioning at its best.

Grief can lead to feelings of despair and loneliness, especially around events like holidays and birthdays that serve as reminders of a loved one’s passing. To avoid bombarding the brain with prolonged grief-related stress that can lead to serious health implications, it is important to manage grief healthfully by focusing on how you respond to it.

Experiencing grief is a natural response to loss, and a complicated state of mind that may affect the body and brain in a variety of ways. Some people describe it as a feeling of profound sadness and a deep yearning for what’s gone missing. And although grief can cause immense emotional pain, it can also affect the body physically as well, especially if someone gets stuck in their grief and loneliness.



Grief’s impact on the body and brain

When grief becomes overwhelming, it can trigger feelings of loneliness and lead to isolation. The bereaved person may experience sleep disturbances, lose their appetite, withdraw from others, and fail to get adequate exercise. A grief-stricken person may also turn to catastrophic thinking, believing the loneliness is permanent and unchangeable.

Loneliness, however, is driven by cognition or by perception. Rather than allow false perceptions to dictate behavior, reframing thought processes can better help manage downward spiraling thoughts. For example, if an otherwise close friend does not contact you, it may seem like they do not care or have forgotten about you. Reframing though could help reveal that the friend simply does not know what to say or do.

Socially isolating and being inactive for too long can lead to poor aging outcomes like dementia. Isolation can rob the brain of stimulation. Without stimulation, the brain begins to atrophy or decline. Being isolated without social interaction is detrimental to both mental and physical health. Older adults who remain isolated or confined to their room or home, whether by choice or circumstance, are also at risk. That’s because humans are social beings and require interaction and engagement to stay mentally healthy. Without it, stress becomes chronic, and the effects can be profound, from impacting the immune and cardiovascular system to disrupting brain function.

Grieving is essential and natural when there’s a loss. However, it’s not a linear thing and will ebb and surge as grief is processed. There are several coping strategies that can help someone move forward.

Coping strategies for combating grief and loneliness

Stress is also a normal part of life. There will always be something that creates stress, whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a job loss, or dealing with an illness. The key to managing stress is finding healthful ways to handle it when it comes calling and mustering the energy to push outside of your comfort zone even if it feels uncomfortable to do so.

Here are some coping strategies when grief or loneliness feels insurmountable:

Consider seeing a therapist or grief counselor. Cognitive therapy can help the bereaved work through emotional pain and provide perspective in healthy ways.

Connect with other people. Rather than isolate, seek ways to engage socially with others. Look into meetup groups in your area. These groups gather to attend events, dine out together, or meet for game nights. They’re made up of members who share similar interests and hobbies, so it’s easy to find one that suits you.

Share your feelings. You’re not alone. Share your feelings with someone you trust. Or join a bereavement group, where you can exchange ideas on coping and share similar experiences.

Seek comfort in your spirituality. You can find support at your place of worship. Join a prayer group or get involved in a ministry that offers solace to members who may be grieving as well. Helping others talk through their grief can be therapeutic for everyone involved and provides a sense of purpose.

Write out your feelings. Journaling is a great way to express your thoughts and feelings. Writing it down can help you get feelings and thoughts out of your head so you can feel less burdened by them. It also serves as a record of how you may or may not be progressing, and whether it may be time to seek professional counseling.

Take care of yourself. Exercise, eat a balanced diet, and get enough sleep, all of which helps you cope emotionally. Avoid self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, or food, which can delay healing and increase stress and anxiety.

Make new traditions. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and other milestone events can be difficult for someone experiencing a loss. There is the perception and expectation that they are a time for family. If a loved one has died, there will be a void because the family dynamic has changed. Instead of isolating, create new routines and traditions that will become meaningful for you every year thereafter.

The bottom line

Grief can feel like you’re climbing a mountain. It may feel overwhelming at times, so think about just finding the next foothold or taking the next step. When you’re able to affect how you react or feel, you’ll reach a sense of empowerment.

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