How Grief Impacts Your Body and Your Brain

We tend to think of grief in only the most abstract, esoteric terms. It’s something that affects our emotions, our psyche, perhaps even our soul—all things that are rather hard to quantify or measure through meaningful metrics.

And sure enough, grief hits us on an internal level that’s rather difficult to even articulate—but that’s not the only way in which grief makes its presence known.

In a very real, demonstrable way, grief can impact us physically and physiologically. It impacts our brain and our body.

Grief Changes Us

The author of a 2011 Prevention article helps articulate this strange connection. He notes that his 58-year-old brother was diagnosed with cancer and died fairly shortly thereafter. Two weeks later, the author—disease-free and healthy up until that point—was suddenly in the operating room, receiving surgery for cataracts.

Coincidence? Maybe—but maybe not. Maybe it’s proof of just how directly the grieving process alters our bodies and our brain chemistry.

And this isn’t just something with personal implications. For business owners and high-producing executives, the mind- and body-altering nature of grief can have a profound impact on the bottom line.

Look again to that Prevention article, which shares a compelling case study. Finance professionals tracked the metrics for 75,000 Danish companies in the two years before and after each company’s CEO suffered a major family loss. “Financial performance declined 20% after the loss of a child, 15% after the death of a spouse, and almost 10% after the demise of any other family member,” the article states.

This is Your Brain on Grief

But how can something as admittedly heavy as the loss of a family member alter our thinking? The short answer: It literally changes the physical landscape of our brains.

Brain studies have been conducted on people who are grieving, and the results are fascinating. Those in bereavement experience a high level of activity along a broad band of neurons—neurons that link the areas associated with mood, memory, and perception. Not only that, but these neurons also regulate the heart, the digestive track, and other vital organs.

As you grieve, these vital parts of your brain are actually changed. Given that, it’s not so surprising that a man experiencing heavy grief might undergo a major medical issue, like the sudden need for cataract surgery. Nor, for that matter, should it surprise us that Broken Heart Syndrome is a real, physical malady.

Meanwhile, the more we occupy ourselves with negative thoughts, the more these neural pathways are changed and redefined—meaning it’s possible for the brain to shift toward a chronic obsession with melancholy, sadness, or depression.

Learning Healthy Ways to Grieve

As we think about grieving, then, the important thing isn’t merely to grieve in a way that makes us feel better, but to grieve in a way that minimizes the damage done to our brains and, by extension, our bodies.

But what does brain-friendly grief look like?

Some suggestions:

  • Think of negative thoughts as invaders, and try to keep them from permeating your consciousness; you might even say stop it out loud to keep these intruders out.
  • Set aside some time for sadness and for grief, rather than allowing it to seep into every corner of your life and every moment of your day.
  • Avoid beating yourself up or assigning blame; loss tends to be accompanied by regret, but that’s not a healthy road to go down.

And: Pursue grief coaching. Have someone in your corner who can direct you on the best ways to grieve—helping you honor your loved one while safeguarding your brain and body.

Mary Ellen Wasielewski