The Impact of Grief and Trauma On the Brain

Posted on
October 11, 2019 by

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.