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  • Amirah Ahmad Shah

How to understand the Science of Grief and Find Meaning in Your Loss

Do you want to go through grief alone? It's such a personal experience. but you don’t need to go through grief and bereavement alone. Counselling can

1) help you make meaning of your loss,

2) reconnect you with your internal, social, and spiritual resources,

3) as well as finding that balance towards mindfulness and presence.


Often when we hear the word 'grief', the idea of losing someone to death comes to mind. However, grief comes in many different ways such as:

the loss of financial stability,

the losses of freedom, dignity, innocence,

losing certain aspect of our health,

or the loss of a relationship.


Sometimes we grieve without even realising that we are indeed mourning over a significant loss in our lives. Think about the past year we have had, the coronavirus pandemic has left the world with a myriad of losses to grieve from. And grieving can indeed impede with our daily functioning, and impact our close relationships.


While we often think of ‘grief’ as the result of losing someone through death, there are many other types of grief which can cause immense pain and affect us in profound ways. For instance, you may be going through a relationship breakdown, job redundancy, business failure, or deteriorating health.



The Neuroscience

Feel Good Hormones

When we feel bonded and close to our loved ones the body produces these “feel good chemicals” that include oxytocin, which is also called the cuddle hormone. The feel good chemicals also include dopamine, and serotonin.


So when we feel close to our loved ones, these feel-good chemicals are naturally running through our system. Our body functions well, our mood is stable, and we feel content.


Grief and Loss triggers this system. An immediate plummet in these feel-good chemicals can cause increase stress-chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These chemicals stimulate the fight, flight, and freeze response.


Stress Hormones

Cortisol is important for the body to respond to threat or danger.


Cortisol is that it is extremely beneficial in situations where you need to act quickly, but essentially lead to certain physical, emotional, and mental symptoms.


Cortisol causes your heart rate to rise, causes your blood to flow to your muscles, to prepare yourself for defence.


It is also common to feel tension in the upper body like the chest and shoulders, because you’re gearing up for action. When cortisol is raging through your system, you may encounter difficulties in slowing down or taking a deep breath. This then can also lead to interferences with digestion, feeling dizzy, nauseated, unable to concentrate, and difficulties with eating or sleeping.



Appetites

Long-term grief can increase people’s appetites, but that short-term, or acute, grief can turn one’s appetite off. When experiencing acute stress, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode and shut down our digestive systems, so as to save energy to fight or run away. If this becomes chronic stress, it can look like an increase in appetite, in attempts to.. self-soothe.

After the death of my mother, I found myself devoid of appetite. As the months painfully ploughed on, I noticed patterns of emotional eating after periods of exhaustion from crying for days on end.

Dizziness

Dizziness is very common when you are in complete shock, or overwhelmed, because your blood pressure has dropped suddenly to a ridiculously low level.


Health Problems

When the body unleashes a flood of stress hormones and chemicals in response to grief and loss, it can worsen many pre-existing health conditions (such as heart failure or diabetes) or lead to new ones (such as high blood pressure or heartburn), or other immunity deteriorations.

My personal experience experience of bereavement resulted in me losing hair, and my menstrual regulation for 6 months.

Heart Problems

Extreme stress, the kind experienced after the loss of a loved one, is associated with changes in heart muscle cells or coronary blood vessels (or both) that prevent your heart from contracting effectively - a condition called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or broken-heart syndrome. So that heartbreak you feel to describe intense feelings of loss and sadness, but it turns out that these words are more than metaphorical:


...grief does physically affect our hearts.

Numbness

Also, when cortisol levels are very very high, it is common to feel numb, cut-off, and disconnected. Think of this process as your body’s built-in defence mechanism.


Often in this case, as soon as the initial shock of loss subsides we begin to feel the pain. If we continue feeling numb for an extended period of time, it might be good to speak with a counsellor.


Separation Anxiety

fMRI studies found that the areas of the brain that gets activated in loss are the

same areas of the brain responsible for the separation anxiety.


Separation anxiety is experienced by the infant when separated from his/her caregiver. It's also associated with crying and yearning for reconnection.

Not surprisingly, these are same areas of the brain which are associated with physical pain.

Memories

The amygdala and the hippocampus are part of our limbic system, which deals with recalling memories and associations.


For example, you might also notice that grief over one loss brings up other historical losses; especially those that were not resolved, or when you start to think about the loss, more memories come, you feel sadder and sadder, more thoughts and emotions around the loss arise, and swirls around, and possibly overcomes you.


In which case, you can consciously decide to put a stop to it, and change your thought patterns towards acceptance or distract yourself... OR you could kinda go with the flow, let it all spill out, and experience a cathartic relief.


Research suggests that we can put our memories and reflections into words to activate our brain meaningfully.


In the case of bereavement, you process loving, tender memories of your loved one (providing that such memories are available), when you write to or about your loved one.


Over time these reflections can offer a bridge, allowing you to create sustained connections with people you have lost.


Here are some ways to create a meaningful, insightful narrative about your loss:

1. What this experience of grief and loss means to you?


2. How does this loss affect your faith in humanity, or spiritually?


3. How do people around you relate with you going through this loss?

Is it recognised by others? How do people of your culture see your loss?

Why or why not?

Are you supported?

Does your interaction with others in relation to your loss change how you feel about your social and cultural circles?


4. And finally, and most importantly (for bereavement), your narrative of the relationship you had the person you lost.

How you make sense of the time you had together, the ebbs and flows of the relationship, the makeups and the breakups, the pain and the joy, the traumas and the forgiveness, the love and the suffering, the unrealised planned futures what that means.


I will conclude with the words of Lisa Shulman, author of Before and After Loss: A Neurologist's Perspective on Loss, Grief, and Our Brain:

"Even in the worst of times, it’s empowering to understand the basis for our experience of loss and to learn steps we can take to enhance recovery and healing. It’s true that healing will come with time, but post-traumatic growth requires insight."

If you or someone you know could benefit from professional grief counselling, please do not hesitate to send me a message: https://www.aroad2recovery.com/contact


A grief counsellor will be able to listen to your experience, and help you distinguish grief from depression, amongst many other things.


Sources

1) Broken-Heart Syndrome:

https://www.svhhearthealth.com.au/conditions/takotsubo-cardiomyopathy#:~:text=Takotsubo%20cardiomyopathy%20is%20a%20temporary,ability%20to%20pump%20blood%20effectively.


2) fMRI Grief, Loss & Separation Anxiety:

Grief: A Brief History of Research on How Body, Mind, and Brain Adapt

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6844541/

Immunological and neuroimaging biomarkers of complicated grief https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3384442/

The neurobiological reward system in Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD): A systematic review https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0925492720301074?dgcid=rss_sd_all


3) Memories:

Where are memories stored in the brain?

https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain-basics/memory/where-are-memories-stored

Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief and the Brain

https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog/and-after-loss-neurologist%E2%80%99s-perspective-loss-grief-and-brain

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