When we lose someone dear to us, a child or a parent or a partner or really anyone close, the grief can be profound and devastating. The expression is “heartbroken” but in reality, the part of the body most affected is the brain. Grief happens in stages, but that too is how the brain works. There is simply too much to take in all at once. The emotions of grief are stressors that cause the pituitary gland to release the hormone ACTH, which, in turn, raises the level of cortisol, a stress hormone. Cortisol impacts the immune system and since grief is an ongoing process, the toll on the brain and the body is immense.
While the initial intense pain of loss fades, what takes its place is a numbness that is driven by the anterior cingulate cortex, which regulates emotion and heart rate. From there, some who are in grief experience depression, which can have multiple effects on health and wellness. Moving on from the raw pain of new loss varies from person to person, but it does happen. Exercise, cognitive behavior therapy and talking with others about the person who has died can activate the reward center in the brain and that helps with healing.