How Does Grief Play in the Theatre of the Brain?

By on February 1, 2018

GRIEF  is an emotion that affects us all.

Whether your marriage has ended suddenly or you have lost your partner in death, the deep heartache that follows can overwhelm you. For many, it can be a life-altering emotion that is hard to recover from. How your body responds to grief has much to do with your brain.

From your physical health to your emotional well-being, grief affects the brain and touches every aspect of your life. What messages does it send out when something traumatic happened and how does it differ from person to person?  We’re looking at how grief affects the brain and the body.

How Grief Affects the Brain

Grief and brain work hand in hand. Upon suffering the loss of your mate your brain sends out signals that tell the body how to proceed physically, emotionally, and mentally. Grief is expressed differently from person to person. Grief can affect the brain in strong ways, such as:

The Hippocampus and Weakened Concentration

During grief, the hippocampus portion of the brain, responsible for emotion, attention, your general ability to take interest in anything is affected. When you experience the unplanned loss of your mate, your brain begins to process how to mourn and goes into a protective shock. This will slow down your cognitive response system and make concentrating seem nearly impossible.

Simple Decision Making Skills Falter

The process of grieving sends your brain into overdrive, deciding how to function both physically and emotionally. This can cause simple functions, such as making a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision feel nearly impossible.

General Brain Fog and the Limbic System

The limbic system is the part of your brain that triggers emotions and memory recall. During loss, your brain begins to release chemicals and hormones that interrupt your body’s regular reactions. In a sense, your body has gone into a state of emergency. This can dull your memory and give you what is known as a “brain fog”. You feel absent-minded and cannot seem to recall memories or simple details any longer. This also makes current events in your life seem unreal or like a blur of emotion.

Parasympathetic Nervous System Failure

When you are experiencing shock or grief, your autonomic nervous system (located in the lower spinal cord and in the brainstem) is affected. This is the area of the brain and body that controls breathing and digestion. This is why those grieving usually experience loss of appetite, difficulty breathing, and other intestinal issues.

Emotional Reactions to Grief

Grief and the brain cause different people to react to loss in different ways. Your personal reaction to loss is unique to you and your brain. Where some people may respond to a sudden emotional loss with outright sadness, your brain may put you into shock and make your behavior seem “normal” to onlookers. Here are some of the common emotional reactions to grief.

  • Feelings of Solitude: One understandable emotional reaction to grief is severe loneliness and detachment. When your mate leaves you suddenly, through sudden divorce or death, it is common to feel that nobody else understands what you have lost. This can create feelings of solitude and pulling away from those who were once closest to you.
  • Anxiety: This is the body’s natural “fight or flight” stress response. It is normal to have feelings of anxiety in moments of intense fear or grief. Anxiety can make you feel uneasy about social situations and give you a general feeling of unease. It can also manifest itself in a physical response such as with shaking, vomiting, and nausea.
  • Questioning Beliefs: Asking “Why” is common for those who are going through hard times in their lives. Asking why your life has been shattered, why your mate had to get sick, why they met someone else, or why you’re going through such unjust treatment can be emotionally and physically taxing. This can cause you to question your moral or spiritual faith and cause you to doubt your whole belief system.
  • Anger: One of the five stages of grief is anger. This may be anger that your spouse is gone, anger that you’re left alone to carry the marriage responsibilities, or anger that your life did not go the way you planned. This anger can create bitterness and fuel the need for vengeance. These are self-destructive qualities that you try your best to stay away from.
  • Sadness and Depression: It is normal to feel sad after a shocking loss in your life. Feeling empty, persistent sadness, loss of interest in old hobbies, crying, guilt, and helplessness are also common emotional symptoms of loss.

Physical Reactions to Grief

Grief and the brain can manifest pain with physical reactions as well. These side-effects of grief commonly include:

  • Nausea and Vomiting: Feelings of disgust or unease in the stomach that lead to retching are common when under stress or emotional duress.
  • A Weakened Immune System: Those who have just experienced loss are scientifically more likely to suffer from a weakened immune system. This is a physical reaction to shock in the body.
  • Insomnia: Stress and anxiety over a sudden loss of your marriage mate, through death or divorce, can cause sleep deprivation.
  • Weight Fluctuation: One unhealthy physical side effect of grieving is to overeat or undereat, causing severe and dangerous weight fluctuations.
  • Difficulty Breathing: Hyperventilating or loss of breath are common symptoms of the fear and anxiety that come from grief
  • Digestive Issues: Upset digestive system is common during periods of grief. Dealing with constipation or diarrhea, as well as indigestion are all common physical reactions to grief.

Grief, death, and loss are all a part of life, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. Grief affects the brain with a sharp impact that can be difficult to get a grasp on. If you are grieving the loss of your marriage or your partner’s life, seek out counseling or close friends and family for support during this difficult time.

About Rachel Pace

Rachael Pace is a relationship expert with years of experience in training and helping couples. She has helped countless individuals and organizations around the world, offering effective and efficient solutions for healthy and successful relationships. Her mission is to provide inspiration, support and empowerment to everyone on their journey to a great marriage. She is a featured writer for, a reliable resource to support healthy happy marriages.

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