Your Brain on Grief

You’ve probably heard of “baby brain”, a term defined by the fog that encompasses your memory and thought processes after the sleepless, stressful time of bringing a new baby home, but I want to talk about “widow brain”. Something discussed less frequently, but is just as real and frustrating. I’m a bit of a brain nerd and haven’t made a post in a while so bear with me!

Let me tell you about the person I was before Sean died.

I was organized, always on time (preferably early) I was thoughtful, patient, and mindful.

Now, however, I forget everything.

I forget birthdays, appointments and plans,  to eat, where I put my keys, where I put my phone, where I left those important papers. I forget to pay bills, grocery shop, vacuum. I can forgot what someone literally just said to me while I was looking them in the eye. These day-to-day tasks glaze over my conscious thoughts because I am still struggling to just keep my head above water.

I can’t sleep or concentrate. I make poor and irrational decisions, can’t remember jack and experience an overall feeling of being mentally “checked out”.

I’ve heard (and said) the phrase “sick with grief” before, and as it turns out, there is some literal truth to that- grief can physically make you ill. There’s a little hormone in our bodies called Cortisol AKA “The stress hormone”, it increases during times of acute stress and in most healthy, young people, decreases rapidly. However, when we encounter times of great stress, Cortisol floods our systems and especially in older individuals, takes longer to decrease. The presence of Cortisol in higher quantity and for longer duration in the system is toxic and effects the physiology of the brain, particularly the Hippocampus, which, controls- guess what?


But it doesn’t end there. Let’s talk about your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), this section of your nervous system is in the brain stem and lower part of your spinal cord, it’s mostly responsible for rest, breathing and digestion, after the loss of a loved one, some find that their breathing becomes irregular or shallow, appetite decreases and insomnia becomes an issue. Your frontal lobe/prefrontal cortex, which, fun fact: doesn’t fully develop until your twenty-five (and I was widowed at 24, so I’m not doing so hot) controls planning and self-control. Trauma can effect articulation and the ability to act appropriately.  The limbic system is the emotional powerhouse of the brain: The hippocampus is part of the system, and as mentioned before, is in charge of memory and recall, integration and attention- basically grief just throws it into a blender and calls it a day. Your brain has an innate ability to try and protect itself, when experiencing a trauma, physiological responses to grief can be perceived as a threat and the amygdala (fear originates here) instructs the rest of your brain to resist grief- this can result in instinctual or physical responses to triggers that remind the person of their loss (IE: Me seeing someone in uniform picking up their child from daycare and freezing in an absolute panic while trying to decide to power through or run away (fight or flight)) this may be why I still feel like I’m operating in “survival mode” and why I’ve been sick so much this past year.

My body is tired

My mind is exhausted

My soul is worn down.

But I will continue to survive, until I can live again.




To read more about physiological effects of grief on the brain/body:

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