How the Brain Reacts to Traumatic Grief

How the Brain Reacts to Traumatic Grief

There are many things to keep in mind when considering events that are described as “traumatic” and capable of causing considerable and long lasting grief. Perhaps one of the most important things to remember is that the response of someone who has experienced a traumatic event is due to intense chemical changes in the brain. This means it is usually completely natural and often not under the control of the individual. Expecting someone who gone through a traumatizing event to get over it is unrealistic, counterproductive and insensitive. None of us can simply “snap out of it” so expecting that is not realistic and completely lacking in empathy.

image

Because the reactions have a biochemical basis, the prolonged nature of a series of traumatic events or the severity of even a single event can cause mental disorders. These may be due to trauma or grief and sometimes both. We will discuss trauma and grief separately to develop a better understanding. Even so, it is important to understand they are interconnected and that trauma is often followed by severe grief and sorrow. If the initiating events are severe enough, disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Major Depressive Disorder can develop. In the worst case scenario, both disorders render the patient incapable of continuing their life and they cannot remain functional. These disorders are diagnosed illnesses of the brain and should be treated as such by seasoned and qualified treatment professionals.

Trauma:

There are a number of events that can cause significant trauma such as the loss of a loved one or being subject to sexual abuse, rape and bullying among others. During the event itself, a “flight, freeze or fight mechanism” is initiated in our brain caused by the release of chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. Our body responds to prepare for danger by increasing breathing and heart rate and directing a large amount of blood flow to our muscles to face the danger and as such we experience anxiety, fear, panic and stress.

HouFlood

If the events are severe enough, the brain is rewired to respond to stimuli even long after the event has passed. Sometimes these stimuli are only remotely related to the event and in severe cases may have no relation to the event whatsoever! The region in our brain known as the hippocampus is responsible for converting short term to long term memory. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, can cause reduction of volume of this area and this causes the brain to have difficulty distinguishing past events from the present which often causes these triggers to occur. PTSD also causes reduction in the volume of the prefrontal lobe of the cerebral cortex; an area in the brain responsible for controlling the amygdala of the brain which causes these emotional responses. The amygdala then becomes hyperactive leading to increased response to often innocuous stimuli.

As a result of all this the patient undergoes flashbacks, nightmares and experiences panic and fear to any event that can remotely trigger the memory of the initial trauma. This entire process can be solved with proper medication and psychotherapy with a specially trained professional.

Grief:

Grief is the emotion encountered after a traumatic event. This motion can, at times, run its course. However, prolonged continuation of the same or even different traumatic encounters, can cause an individual to develop Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). It is imperative to understand that this is a medically diagnosed disorder of the brain and that patients can’t simply fix themselves by trying to be happy or making an effort to go out more.

image

Patients will often isolate themselves and experience emotions of guilt and self loathing at times as well. They may feel a lack of energy when it comes to carrying out their regular activities and experience long bouts of sadness and gloom. Or they may perceive situations and the future in a negative light and with a lack of hope. Physical symptoms can also include feeling tired, muscle aches, headaches, nausea, insomnia and reduced or increased appetite. At their worst, they may be prone to self harm and immediate help is required.

Depression:

Depression is linked to decreased levels of serotonin in the brain which becomes the biochemical cause of the feeling of gloom and the physical and emotional symptoms described. Depression is an illness that has to be treated with appropriate medication and psychotherapy with a seasoned professional.

Texas Recovery Support

The above discussion makes it crystal clear the trauma and grief aren’t emotions that any of us can simply snap out of or that should be taken lightly. They can progress to serious mental illness and hence appropriate measures should be taken to help and support the patient through the disorders associated with traumatic events.

image

Healing Retreat for Trauma

Healing Retreat for Trauma

In his book “The Body Keeps the Score”, Bessel van der Kolk beautifully examines the way trauma will often stay stuck in an individual’s body as well as their mind. As a result, their brain’s alarm system will go haywire and they become trapped in repetitive patterns of trauma re-creation.

image

Trauma Is Relative

Trauma is relative, and it is not how extreme an event is for us that determines whether or not it is “trauma”, rather it’s the way that negative experience is defining and controlling our life. Furthermore, for many people struggling with an unresolved trauma history, talk based therapies may not be enough to really help. For the trauma survivor, just talking about a traumatic event often produces feelings of being overwhelmed and even dissociation. The frontal, reasoning part of our brain will go off line and what is left “driving the bus” is our primal brain; the amygdala and the limbic system. So even though you may have a client nodding and responding to questions, they may very well be a thousand miles away. Disconnecting from body and mind has kept many people safe for a long time, and that learned defense mechanism will often still kick in, even in the therapy office.

image

In my private practice I sometimes have clients where there is only a certain point we can go to before it becomes unsafe. It is really hard to dive into someone’s deepest and darkest story when I know, and they know, that they have to pick up the kids from school in an hour. I am not saying that individual therapy is not helpful and effective, on the contrary – it absolutely is. But when it comes to severe trauma, people often need something more.

image

What Is Needed

Survivor’s of trauma need a sanctuary: A safe and controlled place where they can get vulnerable and let got of the pressure to hold themselves together. This is why I love working in week-long intensive therapy settings with trauma survivors. In these personal and powerful retreats we are able to engage that primal brain with both experiential and body based approaches. By removing someone from the responsibilities and distractions of daily life and providing them with 24-hour therapeutic support, they can finally let themselves unravel the trauma story that has been shaping who they are for far too long. Yes, it isn’t easy, it may require missing a couple days of work as well as a financial investment, but that is a very small price to pay to be truly free.

Written and offered by Brennon Moore, MS, CTT, CADC-II.

img_3327 img_3326