Coping Skills

How Coping with Grief Can Affect Your Brain

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

You’ve probably heard the term “baby brain” to describe the mind-numbing fog that sets in when you bring a new baby home and you’re overwhelmed and under-slept. You may have also heard of “chemo brain,” where people who are going through cancer treatment have trouble concentrating as a reaction to the medications swirling through their bodies. The concept of “grief brain” is less discussed, but equally real.

Effects of Grief on the Brain

While many people associate grief with a loss or death, that’s not always the case. People can also grieve when adjusting to any sort of new normal. “Maybe you’re becoming an empty nester, or you’re newly retired,” says Jannel Phillips, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Henry Ford Health System. “The emotions you experience look similar to grief – and underneath that grief are neurological changes that take place in the brain.”

In fact, several regions of the brain play a role in emotion, including areas within the limbic system and pre-frontal cortex. These involve emotional regulation, memory, multi-tasking, organization and learning. When you’re grieving, a flood of neurochemicals and hormones dance around in your head. “There can be a disruption in hormones that results in specific symptoms, such as disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, fatigue and anxiety,” says Dr. Phillips.

When those symptoms converge, your brain function takes a hit. After all, if you’re overwhelmed with grief, it stands to reason that you won’t absorb your environment the same way you would when you’re content.

Grief Brain “Remedies”

Unfortunately, there’s no magic tonic that can restore your ability to function when you’re overcome with emotion. But, the following strategies may help you feel more peaceful as you find your way to a new normal.

  • Practice self-care. When it feels like your world is falling apart, the most important thing you can do is focus on yourself. If you take time out to eat well, exercise and sleep, you’ll help your body and your mind recuperate from grief. Insufficient shuteye is particularly challenging to the post-grief mind. “Disrupted sleep interferes with cognition and concentration,” says Dr. Phillips. “Grief often leads to trouble sleeping, so you need to do what you can to establish a good sleep routine.”
  • Take a time out. It’s appropriate – even necessary – to take some time off from work and daily responsibilities to process your grief. Every situation is unique, and there’s no set timeline for when you need to get back in the game. But it’s important to establish a reasonable timeline so your grief doesn’t run your life.
  • Challenge negative thought patterns. Sharing memories is healthy but ruminating on what-ifs can be mind-numbing. “It’s not just that we’re thinking about our loss, but also the situations tied to that loss,” Dr. Phillips explains. So instead of heading down a rabbit hole of negative self-talk – maybe I should have said something, maybe I should have done something, maybe it’s my fault – choose to delight in your happy memories.
  • Get support. If you’re struggling to think straight, and get back to your daily activities, get help. Support groups can offer valuable resources to help manage grief. People who have been where you are can share tools and strategies to help you get back to living. Brief individual counseling can also be beneficial, particularly if you are struggling to complete your normal activities and interact with loved ones.
  • Search for the silver lining. It’s not uncommon for grief to evolve into maladaptive thinking. With some practice, you can learn to reframe nearly every situation to focus on the positive. “The idea is to reframe your experience in a way that allows you to move forward with more peace,” says Dr. Phillips.

While there’s no timetable for the grieving process, most people take steps toward getting back to their lives and responsibilities after two to three weeks.

“When grief is interfering with your relationships, your ability to parent or your work, your loss becomes even greater,” Dr. Phillips says. “Most important, if your grief reaction is explosive, extreme or if you’re having suicidal thoughts, get help. A doctor, therapist or counselor can help you identify coping strategies.”

To find a doctor or therapist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

You can also read more wellness advice in our FeelWell section, so subscribe to get all the latest tips.

Dr. Jannel Phillips is a neuropsychologist who sees patients at Henry Ford’s Behavioral Health clinic at One Ford Place in Detroit, at Henry Ford Medical Center – Hamtramck and at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital.