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Healing Your Brain After Loss: How Grief Rewires the Brain

Webinar on how tragedy affects the brain

Neurologist Lisa M. Shulman, MD, FAAN, explains how tragedy affects the brain

In the recent American Brain Foundation webinar “Healing Your Brain After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective,” Lisa M. Shulman, MD, explains the effects of traumatic events, such as loss and personal tragedy, on the brain. Dr. Shulman is the director of the University of Maryland Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center and is The Rosalyn Newman Distinguished Scholar in Parkinson’s Disease. She has also served as treasurer for the American Academy of Neurology as well as on their Board of Directors, and in 2018, received the President’s Award from the AAN for contributions to the Academy and the neurological profession. Discover the key learnings from the virtual event below.

The Brain’s Response to Grief

Grief comes in many forms. Whether brought on by the death of a loved one, a serious illness or injury, divorce, abuse, or another cause, the brain interprets grief as emotional trauma or PTSD. Dr. Shulman explains that the human brain handles emotional trauma and stress using the same set of processes.

“Traumatic loss is perceived as a threat to survival and defaults to protective survival and defense mechanisms,” says Dr. Shulman. This response engages the fight or flight mechanism, which increases blood pressure and heart rate and releases specific hormones. Grief and loss affect the brain and body in many different ways. They can cause changes in memory, behavior, sleep, and body function, affecting the immune system as well as the heart. It can also lead to cognitive effects, such as brain fog. The brain’s goal? Survival.

“Grief is a normal protective process,” says Dr. Shulman. “This process is an evolutionary adaptation to promote survival in the face of emotional trauma.” Changes in brain function go largely undetected when an individual continues functioning normally, but these experiences still affect how the brain works.

How Tragedy Affects the Brain

In response to traumatic events, the brain creates connections between nerves and strengthens or weakens existing connections depending on the duration and degree of the emotional response. Neuroplasticity, or the ability to alter neural connections, allows the brain to compensate for injury, illness, loss, and other life-altering traumatic events by forming new neural connections based on these experiences. This helps an individual adapt to new situations or environments.

Low to moderate stress increases nerve growth and improves memory while reducing fear. However, chronic stress causes a reduction in nerve growth and memory and increases fear to help an individual focus on survival. This stress response can have a negative effect and the more it happens, the more it becomes hardwired.

“When a circuit fires repeatedly,” Dr. Shulman says, “it’s reinforced and becomes a default setting.” Over the long term, grief can disrupt the diverse cognitive domains of memory, decision-making, visuospatial function, attention, word fluency, and the speed of information processing.

Healing the Brain After Loss

According to Dr. Shulman, even the effects of long-term chronic stress are reversible. She points to mindfulness and relaxation practices like journaling, cognitive behavior therapy, counseling, creativity, and meditation as outlets for post-traumatic growth. These strategies allow feelings of safety, security, and calmness to return so that one can move forward.

“If we don’t work through the traumatic experiences that we have, they will continue to be an obstacle in our lives,” says Dr. Shulman.

Learn more about how grief, loss, and tragedy affect the brain by watching the webinar or reading Dr. Shulman’s book, “Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief and Our Brain.”

The American Brain Foundation was founded to bring researchers and donors together in the fight against brain disease. Interested in more events? Check out our upcoming events and webinars.