Grief is something nearly everyone will experience at some point in their lives. It can be overwhelming and confusing, and it can make the death of a loved one difficult to navigate. But when someone is experiencing grief, what exactly is happening to their brain?
According to Dr. Lisa M. Shulman, a neurologist at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine, our brains perceive traumatic loss as a threat to our survival.
“From an evolutionary perspective, our brains developed to preserve our survival, so anything perceived as a threat to [this] triggers a massive response from the brain that has repercussions for many regions of the body,” she told Live Science. “We’re accustomed to thinking of physical trauma as a threat, but serious emotional trauma has similar effects.”
According to Shulman, the brain responds to different perceived threats the same way. In other words, it has a default reaction that is triggered by any type of serious emotional trauma, whether that be related to grief, divorce, the loss of a job or involvement in combat.
“The amygdala [the brain’s center for emotions], deep inside the primitive part of the brain, is always on the lookout for threats,” Shulman said. “When triggered, it sets off a cascade of events that put the entire body on high alert — the heart speeds up, breathing rate increases and blood circulation is increased to the muscles to prepare to fight or flee.”
But Shulman said this isn’t a standalone event when it comes to grief. Instead, days, weeks and months are filled with reminders that trigger this response, resulting in the amygdala becoming increasingly sensitized and hypervigilant.
“The primitive brain is strengthened at the expense of the advanced brain, which is the seat of judgment and reasoning,” she said. “The brain works overtime to respond to the threat of emotional trauma, summoning psychological defense mechanisms like denial and dissociation.”
Mary-Frances O’Connor, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, said that there’s also a strong evolutionary element to how and why we endure grief.
Read the rest of the article on Live Science here.
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