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The Impact of Grief and Trauma On the Brain

Grief is an emotional experience that causes us to feel deep pain and sadness, and can influence several areas of our lives. Our pain and sadness can become so intense that is consumes every ounce of energy we have. We recognize that grieving is emotional as we can feel it in our heart, but what is happening in our brain?

Memory and Focus

Grief not only impacts us emotionally, it affects our cognitive functioning as well. When we are grieving, we tend to become preoccupied with thoughts and emotions related to the loss, which tends to limit our ability to access our working memory and remember things like we used too. When we are overwhelmed by our loss experience, we also find it more difficult to concentrate and focus on any task at hand.

Have you ever been driving and wondered how you got from point A to point B? Or have you been daydreaming at work and discovered an hour has gone by and you don’t know what you have done within that hour? After working with several grievers, John James and Russell Friedman, founders of The Grief Recovery Institute, identified that grief consumes a significant amount of mental energy. When the emotional centre of our brain is overwhelmed, it makes it very difficult for us to engage in tasks that we would typically find easy and natural to focus on.

Organizing Thoughts

Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brooklyn, Massachusetts and the author of “The Body Keeps the Score.” He has done extensive research on how grief and trauma affects the brain. Dr. Van Der Kolk explains that  the right hemisphere of our brain processes emotions, senses, intuition, and imagination. Whereas the left hemisphere of the brain processes logic, facts, thoughts, and communication. After experiencing grief and trauma our left hemisphere may be impacted and unable to function adequately, ultimately impacting how our right hemisphere organizes thoughts and converts emotions into words. It often feels like we’re “losing our mind” because we actually have a reduced ability to think.

Fight or Flight Response

What is a fight or flight response? I first learned about our fight or flight response in a biology class in high school. I was unaware of how important and significant this response is. For those who are not familiar, our fight or flight response is a physiological response that happens we are in a dangerous, stressful or harmful situation. It is our body’s automatic survival tool. After experiencing trauma our fight or flight response kicks in.

Dr. Bruce Perry wrote a book called “The Boy who was Raised as a Dog”. He shares his research and experiences working with children who are exposed to trauma. He indicated that the average heartbeat for a child ranges from 70-90 beats per minute. In one of his stories, he shared that he checked the pulse of a young girl who had been exposed to trauma and found that her resting heart rate was 160 beats per minute. Perry explained that her heart rate was high because her stress-response system was constantly activated.

Further, hormones and neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and noradrenaline are activated in the brain during a stressful event and control our heartbeat. Dr. Perry suggests that months or years after experiencing trauma, our brains and bodies will still create an overactive response. After we experience such devastating events, our brains will automatically respond if there is anticipation or in a situation that is familiar. Our body and brain are trying to protect and prepare us with the information it knows. This explains why we may experience anxiety, fear, or our fight and flight response when visiting a place where the traumatic even occurred.

Your Healing Journey

Experiencing grief and trauma can be devastating as it not only impacts us emotionally and physically but also physiologically. Once we become aware of how impactful grief and trauma is on our capacities to function in day-to-day life, we can learn how to be more compassionate and kind with ourselves. We can recognize that it is a normal and natural response to painful life situations.

It is also important to take action toward healing.

One powerful and important way to begin your healing journey, is to give yourself permission to feel all of the emotions that come up. Imagine your body like a processing plant for feelings, acknowledging and expressing every emotion that arises. This allows your body to naturally process the painful emotions associated to your loss experience so you can continue to move forward in a healthy way. When we stop the natural processing of emotions, the energy of those emotions becomes stored in our bodies, creating a negatively cumulative impact on our bodies and in our capacities for happiness, joy, and healing.

If you are seeking professional support to address your grief or trauma, our team is equipped with the tools to help. Please reach out to us at The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre at 780-288-8011 or info@healmyheart.ca.

This article was written by Gina Baretta, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, and edited by Ashley Mielke, Owner and Director of The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre. Visit www.healmyheart.ca for information about our grief counselling services and Grief Recovery Method® Programs. 

Photo credit: https://bit.ly/32hH44Z

References:

Perry, B., & Szalavitz, M. The boy who was raised as a dog. United States: Hachette
Book Group.Reivich, K., & Shatté, A. (2003). The resilience factor. New York: Three River Press.

Van der Kolk, B., & Pratt, S. (2015). The body keeps the score. [United States]:
IDreamBooks Inc.

Helpful and Unhelpful Messages About Grief Within Music

Music is a part of our everyday lives. We hear music on our drive to work, when we exercise, while sitting in the waiting room at a doctor’s office, and even in our favorite stores while shopping. Sometimes when we are going through a difficult time in our lives, we can rely on music for healing and inspiration. Catherine Ulbricht is a pharmacist and shares that music is linked to our moods and also has therapeutic effects. Additionally she explains that music can have an impact on a person’s mood and well-being. Music can play an instrumental role as we can relate to the lyrics, form a connection, and feel like we are not alone through our difficult times. When it comes to songs, there are some lyrics that have misinformation and myths pertaining to grief and then there are some others that send a good healing message. This blog dissects current songs that provide misinformation and alternative songs that deliver helpful information. 

Songs with Myths and Misinformation

Be Alright by Dean Lewis

“It’ll be okay
It’s gonna hurt for a bit of time
So bottoms up, let’s forget tonight
You’ll find another and you’ll be just fine
Let her go”

Currently, this is a popular song on the radio and has many myths and misinformation about how to heal after a break-up. One of the myths of grief is time heals all wounds, which implies if we just wait for time to heal, then our pain and grief may diminish. Further, when we grieve we use short term energy relieving behaviors (STERBs) which portray the idea that we are attending to our feelings but we are actually suppressing them. The second and third line suggests to give it time and use alcohol, which is a STERB, to forget about the pain. Another myth of grief is to replace the loss which the final two lines imply that there are plenty of people to choose from who can replace the partner. 

Numb by Jaira Burns

“Oh, I’ve been drinking for reasons other than fun
And I’m feeling numb-numb-numb-numb, numb-numb-numb-numb
I’ve been smoking this sadness into my lungs
And I’m feeling numb-numb-numb-numb, numb-numb-numb-numb”

Numb by Jaira Burns addresses the use of STERBs and the actual effects it has when we use them. When we participate in these behaviors we only experience a temporary sense of relief. The problem with STERBS is when we use these behaviors it gives us an illusion that we are healing but we are actually burying and numbing the pain. In this song she uses drinking and smoking as a way to numb her pain and sadness. It is important that when we are grieving we are attuned to our feelings and move through the pain rather than avoid it or replace it with substances. 

The Show must go on by Queen

“The show must go on
The show must go on (yeah yeah)
Ooh, inside my heart is breaking
My make-up may be flaking
But my smile still stays on”

This song was one of the last songs written by Queen and was to show Freddie Mercury’s drive to want to continue singing through his battle with AIDS. Although there is inspirational meaning behind this song it is a good example about how we may put our emotions on hold instead of feeling and acknowledging them. John James and Russell Friedman of The Grief Recovery Institute created a term called “Academy Award Recovery” which is when we put on an act or façade that we are doing okay, but instead we are experiencing heartache and sadness. Within these lyrics we can see that Freddie Mercury is suffering and full of heartache but he still tries to keep a smile on his face. The misinformation in this song is we do not have to put on a fake smile when we are grieving. If we are open, honest, and intentional with our feelings we can work through our grief and start our journey toward moving beyond the pain. 

Songs with Helpful Information and Inspiration

Must have never met you by Luke Combs

“I guess whoever said the grass is greener 
Must have never seen the other side
What don’t kill you makes you stronger 
Sure sounds like a lie
And whoever said that time heals everything 
And everything will be alright?
Whoever said it ain’t the end of the world
You can find somebody new
Must’ve never met you”

Luke Combs challenges and addresses three myths in his song including, Be Strong, Time Heals Everything and Replace the Loss. He questions the societal norm and what he has heard from others and realizes these beliefs do not match his grieving process.  Additionally, he acknowledges an intellectual comment that is commonly heard after a break up which is “the grass is greener on the other side.” We know that intellectual comments are not helpful because they do not focus on the emotion or what the person is going through. When we suggest that the grass is greener on the other side, we are implying that what you had is replaceable and to move on because there is something better or more out there. He responds in his second line by saying the other side is not what he wants as he is grieving his current relationship and not ready to move forward.  

Cry Pretty by Carrie Underwood

“And falling apart is as human as it gets
You can’t hide it, you can’t fight what the truth is

You can pretty lie and say it’s okay
You can pretty smile and just walk away
Pretty much fake your way through anything
But you can’t cry pretty”

Carrie Underwood’s song Cry Pretty implies that you cannot hide from your emotions and eventually will have to embrace and feel your emotional pain. The line “falling apart is as human as it gets” is a powerful and inspiring message that holds truth. In our lives we are given the gift to feel love and give love. When we can feel love this also means we will experience loss and sadness when we lose people who are close to us. It is in our human nature to “fall apart” and feel sadness and despair just like we feel happiness and love. True strength comes out when we allow ourselves to grieve and feel instead of trying to hide behind a smile or a lie. 

This Ain’t my Momma’s Broken Heart by Miranda Lambert

“Go and fix your make up girl it’s, just a break up run an’
Hide your crazy and start actin’ like a lady ’cause I
Raised you better, gotta keep it together even when you fall apart,
But this ain’t my mama’s broken heart”

In this song by Miranda Lambert shares messages that are learned through our lives that do not help with the grieving process. In these short lyrics, the myth of being strong is used by suggesting that you have to be strong and pull yourself together to act like a lady. She further sings about how we have been taught to keep it together even when we feel like falling apart. The concluding lyric in this verse sends a message that everyone will grieve differently and grieve in their own unique way. What may have “worked” for the mom is not helping the broken heart in this story. This song teaches us that even though we may have been told myths and misinformation we still have the opportunity to grieve in our own way. It also teaches us that we will all grieve individually and will have unique experiences with our losses. 

If you are seeking support to move through the pain of loss in your life, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team at The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre. We can be reached at 780-288-8011 or info@healmyheart.ca.

This article was written by Gina Baretta, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, and edited by Ashley Mielke, Owner and Director of The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre. Visit www.healmyheart.ca for information about our grief counselling services and Grief Recovery Method® Programs. 

Photo credit: www.udiscovermusic.com/news/carrie-underwood-cry-pretty-tracklisting

Reference: Ulbricht, C. (2013). Music Therapy for Health and Wellness. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/natural-standard/201306/music-therapy-health-and-wellness

Why a Change in Health is a Form of Grief

Our bodies and health will naturally progress and change throughout our lives. Health could be affected by diets, injuries, accidents or unexpected illnesses. Personally, I had a change to my health at the young age of 19. I tore my MCL in my knee during a provincial bronze medal soccer game. I was devastated, as I had played soccer my whole life and managed not to sustain any major injuries. After my knee injury, I spent 2 months in crutches and spent a year attending physiotherapy to make sure my knee was strong again. Since the injury I have retired from playing soccer and can no longer run recreationally like I used to. I grieved losing my athletic endurance, stability, and flexibility. My knee will still seize on me at random times during the day and I will need to ice and elevate it to get it back to normal.  My lifestyle changed immensely as the hobbies I used to love were robbed from me because of my injury. 

Have you ever considered a change in your health as a form of grief and loss? John James and Russell Friedman define grief as the “conflicting feelings caused by an end or change in a familiar pattern of behavior.” A change in health can create conflicting feelings and our emotional reactions can be confusing. For me, I was grateful that I could still exercise but sad I could not run the same way I used to. Changes in health can cause limitations, change in routine and lifestyle, alterations to your hopes and dreams as well as acceptance of your new reality. As we experience these changes it can create feelings of sadness, hopelessness, disappointment, and frustration. 

Limitations: After experiencing a change in your health you may bump into some limitations within your life. For some, a change in health could put limits on their ability to work and exercise, and interfere with their daily activities. Additionally, dietary restrictions and allergies can be a major health change that can make us feel limited and restrained. These limits and restrictions may include a change in grocery bills, limitations for eating out, requiring special accomodations in social events and a concerted effort to meet dietary needs. This process could be isolating and frustrating especially if it is not by choice.

Change in routine/lifestyle: When we have a major change to our health we may not be able to do what we used to, therefore we experience a change in our daily routines and lifestyle. These changes can trigger more loss and feelings of unhappiness, hopelessness, and sadness. It is important to know that a variety of emotions could be felt through these transitions and it is normal to feel them. In confidence and anonymously a young woman shared her story about her grief process following a dirt biking accident:

“I experienced a traumatic dirt biking accident that would change my life forever. My experience in the hospital was terrifying and anxiety provoking. I suffered severe injuries in my legs to the point where the doctors were concerned I would lose them. Every day the doctors would come into my room and check to see if there was a pulse in my leg and make sure they were still functioning properly. I was anxious and worried every day and hoped that I was not going to hear the worst. After many months in the hospital, steel plates and a multitude of screws, I was released from the hospital with two active legs. My healing process was lonely and isolating at times because no one knew what I was going through. There were nights that I would have nightmares about the accident and it was terrifying to re-experience it. At times I felt frustrated and hopeless that my life was not going to be better or the same for that matter.

 I nearly lost my life and my ability to walk. Being alive and healthy is something I am eternally grateful for. With that said, my life has changed forever, including my lifestyle and daily routine. Although I am happy to be alive, I grieve my old routines and lifestyle. Some losses that have triggered feelings of grief include not being able to ride dirt bikes again because of my injuries, the constant pain I experience every day, and losing full range of mobility. I had to make changes in my job such as continuously elevate my leg because it swells and I cannot take my dog on long walks. Additionally, my scars embody both of my legs and I do not like to wear shorts because it makes me uncomfortable, especially when people stare. These losses have made me feel frustrated, heartbroken, sad, and hopeless. I have felt conflicting feelings throughout this process being extremely grateful to be alive, but also feeling devastated of the new challenges I am overcoming.” 

Hopes, dreams and expectations: We all have hopes and dreams that we strive and work hard to accomplish. If we experience a health condition that impedes on our journey towards our dreams this can create feelings of grief. For example, if you dreamed of running the Boston Marathon but ended up suffering a massive injury that caused you not to run anymore, you may feel lost, disappointed, and sad. If you were in a tragic car accident, suffered permanent damage, and unable to do the things you once dreamed of, your hopes and expectations of yourself could be negated. If you suffered a brain injury and could not continue with the job or education you love you may feel discouraged and sad knowing you have to start a new career path. 

Health related changes can create immense feelings of hopelessness and disappointment. Regardless of what emotions you feel, be gentle with yourself. You are experiencing a major life transition and do not need to “figure it out” immediately. We must acknowledge and validate our emotions, be attentive to our emotions, and find healing at our own pace.

If you are struggling to overcome the pain, isolation, or loneliness caused by a loss of health, accident, injury, or illness in your life, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team at The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre. We can be reached at 780-288-8011 or info@healmyheart.ca

This article was written by Gina Baretta, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, and edited by Ashley Mielke, Owner and Director of The Grief & Trauma Healing Centre. Visit www.healmyheart.ca for information about our grief counselling services and Grief Recovery Method® Programs. 

Photo credit: https://www.mackesysmye.com/articles-resources/personal-injury/pain-and-suffering

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