611 W. Union Street
Benson, AZ 85602
(520) 586-0800

member support line
M-F 5pm-8pm
24/7 weekends/holidays

AzCH Nurse Assist Line


611 W. Union Street
Benson, AZ 85602
(520) 586-0800

AzCH Nurse Assist Line


powered by centersite dot net
Health Sciences
Basic InformationLatest News
Ten Years On, Gene Therapy Still Beating Most Cases of 'Bubble Boy' Immune DiseaseResearchers Find Better Way to Fight Breast Cancer That Has Spread to BrainShape, Size of Brain Arteries May Predict Stroke RiskTracking Key Protein Helps Predict Outcomes in TBI PatientsSigns of Early Alzheimer's May Be Spotted in Brain StemCould Cholesterol Help Drive Alzheimer's Disease?Insights Into Genes Driving Epilepsy Could Help With TreatmentFewer American Adults Are Getting Malignant Brain TumorsLong-Term Outlook for Most With Serious Brain Injury Is Better Than ThoughtStroke Prevented His Speech, But Brain Implant Brought It BackWHO Calls for Global Registry of Human Genome EditingScientists Track Spirituality in the Human BrainNew Insights Into How Eating Disorders Alter the BrainGene Differences Could Have Black Patients Undergoing Unnecessary BiopsiesCRISPR Therapy Fights Rare Disease Where Protein Clogs OrgansNew Genetic Insights Into Cause of ALSDeep Brain Stimulation Therapy May Help Parkinson's Patients Long TermAmazon Tribe Could Hold Key to Health of Aging BrainsMan Blind for 40 Years Regains Some Sight Through Gene TherapyNew Insights Into Treating Mild Head Injuries'Ghosts and Guardian Angels': New Insights Into Parkinson's HallucinationsHigher Education Won't Help Preserve the Aging Brain: StudyScientists Create Embryos With Cells From Monkeys, Humans'Game of Thrones' Study Reveals the Power of Fiction on the MindScientists Create Human Tear Glands That Cry in the LabAHA News: How Grief Rewires the Brain and Can Affect Health – and What to Do About ItCould Taking a Swing at Golf Help Parkinson's Patients?Autopsy Study May Explain Why Some COVID Survivors Have 'Brain Fog'Gene Study Probes Origins of Addison's DiseaseCould a Common Prostate Drug Help Prevent Parkinson's?AHA News: Hormones Are Key in Brain Health Differences Between Men and WomenNerve Drug Might Curb Spinal Cord Damage, Mouse Study SuggestsIs There a 'Risk-Taking' Center in the Brain?AHA News: Dr. Dre Recovering From a Brain Aneurysm. What Is That?Can 2 Nutrients Lower Your Risk for Parkinson's?New Clues to How Cancers Originate in the BrainBrain May Age Faster After Spinal Cord InjuryScans Reveal How COVID-19 Can Harm the BrainWhat Loneliness Looks Like in the BrainNeurologists Much Tougher to Find in Rural AmericaCOVID-19 Survival Declines When Brain Affected: StudyAs Testing Costs Rise, Neurology Patients May Skip ScreeningGene Therapy Shows No Long-Term Harm in Animals: StudyCould Gene Therapy Cure Sickle Cell Disease? Two New Studies Raise HopesCocoa Might Give Your Brain a Boost: StudyLockdown Loneliness Could Worsen Parkinson's SymptomsChildhood Lead Exposure Tied to Brain Changes in Middle AgeDeep Brain Stimulation May Hold Promise in Alzheimer'sNeurology News Feed
Questions and AnswersLinksBook Reviews
Related Topics

Medical Disorders
Mental Disorders
Mental Health Professions

AHA News: How Grief Rewires the Brain and Can Affect Health – and What to Do About It

HealthDay News
by American Heart Association News
Updated: Mar 10th 2021

new article illustration

WEDNESDAY, March 10, 2021 (American Heart Association News) -- Grief is a common, if not universal, human experience. But that doesn't make it simple.

It's psychological, but it affects people physically. It's a matter of science, but scientists who discuss it can sound poetic. Dr. Katherine Shear, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University School of Social Work in New York, calls grief "the form that love takes when someone we love dies."

COVID-19 has both brought grief and disrupted the way people experience it. But researchers have been examining grief since well before the pandemic.

Simply defining it can be difficult. Shear, who also is director of the Columbia Center for Complicated Grief, said "there are pretty much as many different definitions of grief as there are people." Commonly, it's thought of as a feeling, like sadness. That's not wrong, she said, but it's more accurate to call it "the response to loss," a complex and multifaceted thing with yearning and longing at its core.

Its health implications are serious.

A 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that within 30 days of their partner's death, people ages 60 and older had more than twice the risk of a stroke or heart attack compared to people who hadn't suffered such a loss. That followed a 2012 study in the American Heart Association journal Circulation showing the danger of a heart attack was highest in the first 24 hours after the death of a loved one and people with existing cardiovascular problems might be at particular risk.

Other research has linked grief to disrupted sleep, immune system changes and the risk of blood clots.

Dr. Lisa M. Shulman, professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, said much of the physical effect of grief stems from how our brains respond.

The stress from the death of a loved one jolts our personal identity, our view of how we fit into the world, Shulman said. It sounds like a philosophical problem, but the brain is built to perceive an existential threat as a threat to our very existence.

This triggers what most people know as the "fight or flight" response. Stress hormones course throughout the body. "Your heart starts racing, your blood pressure increases, your respiratory rate increases, you become sweaty, as the body marshals defenses for you to protect yourself, one way or another," Shulman said.

Someone who has experienced a traumatic loss, she said, might feel such a response kick in when they enter a restaurant that reminds them of a loved one, or even when someone brings them up in conversation.

But people don't grasp why. "Instead, you just feel this incredible, physiologic response and a rising sense of anxiety, or even panic. And you're flummoxed by it."

Shulman understands this firsthand. Her interest in the neurobiology of grief followed the loss of her husband, Dr. Bill Weiner, a fellow neurologist, who died of cancer in 2012.

Despite her prior experience in dealing with grieving patients, she was unprepared for it herself. The first two years, she said, were particularly difficult. At times she felt disoriented, confused, in a fog – responses that are the brain's attempts to dissociate itself from emotional pain.

Such reactions can make a bereaved person feel isolated, she said, because people feel their problems are unique. But after writing the book "Before and After Loss: A Neurologist's Perspective on Loss, Grief and Our Brain" and giving regular talks on the subject, she's found talking with others can help. That is why the pandemic has made things extra difficult for people who've been cut off from the comfort of others.

Many people have identical experiences with grief, she said – right down to the same dreams.

"People do respond very positively to the message that the experience of grief and loss can be normalized by understanding why and what you're feeling," she said.

Grief can reinforce brain wiring that effectively locks the brain in a permanent stress response, Shulman said. To promote healthy rewiring, people need to strengthen the parts of the brain that can regulate that response. That can involve "a whole range of creative and contemplative practices," from painting to meditation or expressions of faith.

Journaling helped her. By writing about disturbing memories or troubling dreams, "you can read it over in your own words and annotate it over time. And as you do that, you are becoming increasingly aware of these unprocessed thoughts, memories and emotions. And that is the way you start to rebuild more positive neural connections."

Shear said having someone to confide in – even if it's by video call, phone or letter – is important.

Grief, she said, is a lengthy path, marked with milestones people must face – and detours where they can get stuck. Her center offers a website full of information about grief. So does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Grief never just goes away, Shear said. "If the loss is permanent, then so is the grief, because we're defining it as a response to loss."

But the way people experience grief is fluid. It can shift over the course of a day or an hour.

"It will naturally kind of surge and then recede," she said. "We sort of oscillate between confronting the pain of the loss, and then being able to kind of set it aside or compartmentalize it."

Eventually, it can evolve to a place where it resides mostly in the background, with only occasional periods of stronger, noticeable thoughts and feelings about the person who died. And in time, people find ways to let good memories in without triggering stress.

"We never have no response to the fact that someone we love died," she said. "But it does change its form over time."

American Heart Association News covers heart and brain health. Not all views expressed in this story reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved. If you have questions or comments about this story, please email editor@heart.org.

By Michael Merschel