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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.