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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.

The Powerful Impact of Teaching Children How to Deal With Grief

They say that it takes a village to raise a child. Parents, extended family members, family friends, neighbours, caregivers, teachers, and many others, influence a child’s overall social, emotional, and psychological growth.

As a community, it is our responsibility to teach our children effective life skills that will benefit them over their lifetime. When it comes to the inevitable losses that a child will experience, it too is our responsibility to teach them how to effectively heal and move forward.

Sadly, we haven’t been taught how to deal with loss when it happens. As adults we struggle with our own emotional reactions to loss and so naturally, we struggle with addressing the painful emotions of our children. Very often we end up teaching our children the information we were taught. We may repeat things like, “Don’t feel bad, you’ll make new friends”, or “Don’t cry, everything will be okay”, or “It’s okay, we will get you a new [dog, cat, bike]”.

Every child has the capacity and natural ability to work through their grief, regardless of their genetics, gender, and ethnic, cultural, or religious background. We are all born with a natural tendency to feel and express our emotions when we have them.

According to The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative, lifelong skills and emotional health is a result of more than just genetic make-up. Early childhood intervention, education, and experiences, all shape the brain pathways and architecture and how well a child manages stress and any life challenges they may face.

The more equipped we are to deal with our painful emotions, the more equipped we will feel to teach our children these very tools. Teaching our children how to identify emotions, acknowledge emotions, and express emotions has a significant impact on their emotional intelligence over time. It teaches them how to recognize and address their emotions in a healthy and healing manner, rather than avoid, deny, or push down the feelings using substances or distractions. Additionally, it creates safe and trusting relationships, so that when they do experience a loss, they will feel courageous enough to share their experience with us.

The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative also explains that creating a safe, trustworthy relationship with our children peer will boost positive neurological connections and will decrease their risk of participating in harmful behaviors and choices.

Here are some effective strategies we can teach our children that grief is a normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind.

1. Monkey See, Monkey Do. I am sure most of us can recall accidentally saying a “bad word” in front of a child and having them repeat the word back to you. We instantly regret what we have said and hope it is not repeated again. On a positive note, what children “see” as sadness, will most likely be what they “do”. Showing your children that sadness is normal and natural is best shown through real life examples. As an adult, if you have feelings of sadness, it is okay for children to see this experience you are going through. Children are also curious and may ask you “what’s wrong?”. It is also very healthy to explain in an appropriate manner, what is causing your sadness. This demonstrates to our children that sadness is a normal human experience. If you make the decision to push sadness to the side, it teaches your child that whenever someone feels sad, they should stop feeling that way, and brush it off.

2. Avoid Saying “Don’t Feel Bad” or “Don’t Cry”. Let’s say it was Billy’s first time at the dentist. He tells his mom that he is scared and does not want to go. Mom then tells Billy he needs to go to the dentist in order to have healthy teeth. Billy agrees, but becomes scared of the unfamiliar environment and starts to cry in the operatory. Mom then tells him, “Don’t cry, everyone can hear you”. Billy learns very quickly that his sad feelings cannot be expressed or shared with others. Additionally, it is unintentionally communicated that his feelings are now a burden to others. An alternative comment to help Bill could be, “I know this is a scary time, and I am here for you.” or “It is okay that you are feeling scared, I will help you through this.” As adults, it is important that we acknowledge how our children are feeling and validate their emotional vulnerability.

3. Importance of Emotional Availability. It is okay as an adult, not to have the answers to everything. Thankfully, when it comes to loss we do not need to intellectualize or have “the right answers” in order to heal hearts. Being emotionally available to the child, means listening to them like a “heart with ears,” and with no judgment, analysis or criticism. Sometimes, the most effective way of helping children through loss is not all the “smart” comments you can say, but rather being emotionally present and listening with your heart. When we are emotionally available, it teaches the child that they have a safe place to express how they are feeling. If you don’t know what to say, it is okay to say that to them, and then offer them a hug. As adults, we can appreciate how painful it feels when our family or friends say things that may be intellectually true, but don’t appeal to our broken heart. It is the same thing for our children.

If while reading this article you became aware of one or more losses that have impacted your life and you are struggling to move forward, we have the tools to help you move beyond the pain. Contact us today for your free telephone consultation or to book an appointment.

 

This article was written by Gina Baretta, Psychology Intern and 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. 

Reference: http://www.albertafamilywellness.org/what-we-know/the-brain-story

Photo credit: shutterstock