Why the brain goes into hyperdrive after loss

By Dr. Ted Wiard, EdD, LPCC, CGC, founder of Golden Willow Retreat
Posted 6/13/19

This weekly column seeks to help educate our community about emotional healing through grief. People may write questions to Golden Willow Retreat and they will be answered privately to you and …

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Why the brain goes into hyperdrive after loss

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This weekly column seeks to help educate our community about emotional healing through grief. People may write questions to Golden Willow Retreat and they will be answered privately to you and possibly as a future article for others. Please list a first name that grants permission for printing.

Dear Dr. Ted:

Your last article pertaining to the death of a mother was very intriguing and it made me stop and think about when my mother had died. Looking back, I see how the months after her death, my brain seemed to work differently than at other times in my life. I would forget my glasses, not remember where I was going and was often not a nice person. I also believe that I made decisions that at a [another] time in my life I may have made [differently]. Why and how does this phenomenon happen in which it is almost like a different thinking process happens after loss?

Thanks, Rose

Dear Rose:

What you experienced after your mother's death is common even though it feels unique and possibly as if no one else ever feels something like this. You may feel like you are out of your mind and something has hijacked your usual way of navigating the world around you. In actuality, you are deep in your mind. When you have a loss that impacts you emotionally, your brain goes into protection mode and moves deep into your limbic system. The limbic system is the survival part of your brain, and with a loss your world has been shaken, the foundation of your sustainability is questioned and it is as if you are in a "free fall" in which everything you have taken for granted is being questioned.

When your emotional world is in a high impactful loss, your brain thinks you are in a life-threatening situation and shuts down many of your everyday cognitive processes. Due to the high level of perceived danger, short-term memory is not needed; reading comprehension, name recollection, remembering where you left items such as keys, wallet, car and so on seem to be almost impossible and the list goes on. The brain does not think there is a need for short-term recollection due to only trying to survive the moment. Irritability and hypersensitivity are common as all of your senses are hyperaroused and on red alert.

In this survival mode, it feels like you are under a magnifying glass and everybody's attention is on you. The brain becomes protective and may lead to your unconscious also becoming protective and hypersensitive to people you love and know are safe and yet, in this condition, nothing feels safe. With hypersensitivity and irritability, comes high impulsivity, as the brain feels there needs to be action immediately and there is no time to lose.

Reaction becomes the name of the game as you are in a protective, fight mode and the world, along with everything in the world, does not seem safe. Reactivity does not always allow for the best decisions, as all data is not analyzed to make rationale decisions. Knowing that the brain is only trying to protect you, and taking time to heal will help reopen the brain to your frontal lobe of mindfulness, safety, love and healing. Being patient with yourself and knowing that this process is natural and normal will also allow the brain to rebuild a new norm and move out of hypervigilance and back into a calmer world around you.

Thank you for the question. I wish you well. Until next week, take care.

Golden Willow Retreat is a nonprofit organization focused on emotional healing and recovery from any type of loss. Direct any questions to Dr. Ted Wiard, EdD, LPCC, CGC, founder of Golden Willow Retreat at GWR@newmex.com

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