How Does Grief Affect the Brain?

When we encounter a loss, such as the death of a loved one, the experience leaves an indelible print on our hearts and minds. Learning how to cope with their absence and move forward with our lives takes time, courage, and lots of support. Typically, grief is associated most closely with the loss of a loved one, but grief can be attributed to any instance when we are trying to adapt to a striking transformation. Any abrupt, sudden, or unexpected change in our life takes a period of adjustment for our brains to absorb and process. Becoming a new parent, for instance, is a big one. New fathers often joke when they make a simple mistake, such as heading out for the day with no pants on, as having “Dad Brain.” In both cases of grief, the mind is overwhelmed and stressed. It’s trying to adapt and learn how to let go of the life they knew before that watershed moment and reinvent themselves. This is “Grief Brain.” Take a journey to the center of the mind as we endeavor to help you make sense of how grief affects the brain with this comprehensive guide from Ecorial.

How Grief Affects the Brain

An encounter with grief opens a floodgate of neurological activities within the brain. Several regions of the brain have a hand in managing emotion. The three most notable are the limbic system, the pre-frontal cortex, and the insula brain:

  • Limbic System: regulates behavior, emotion, and long-term memory, among other things.
  • Pre-Frontal Cortex: supports personality, behavior, and your ability to plan and organize
  • Insula Brain: controls emotions, empathy, and decision-making functions

When we grieve, hormones and other neurochemicals in these areas are thrown through a loop. They scramble to catch up and comprehend what is happening. Essentially, there can be a “disruption in service” as you work to complete simple tasks. How you manage your daily activities is different than when you’re in a more normal, relaxed state.

As we come to terms with facing a loss, our grief begins to heighten our brain activity. The pain and despair we feel send signals to the brain’s reward system–a group of structures activated when we experience something rewarding or pleasurable; however, when the signals arrive, there’s nothing there. The departed loved one was the reward! All the feel-good chemicals and hormones are no longer produced in this instance. The brain chemistry changes because it no longer receives those lovely hormones such as feel-good endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin. In an authentic sense, your brain has changed.

Cognitive Symptoms of Grief

Everyone is endowed with a set of core abilities known as cognitive skills. This is the process of thinking. They allow us to:

  • create memories
  • pay attention
  • create logical thoughts
  • learn
  • reason
  • problem-solve
  • process information

As grief alters the chemical makeup of our brain, it also deals a blow to our cognitive skill set.

Because the brain is busy diverting all its focus to grieving and coping, there isn’t as much attention being paid to those cognitive elements. The ability for simple tasks to hold your attention for long is diminished, memory recall decreases, and organization and planning skills become hit or miss. Overall, cognitive skills suffer and decline during the process of grieving.

Remedies for “Grief Brain”

Grief is a very unique and personal experience. How long it takes to process our loss, no one can tell. There really is no right or wrong answer. Finding a path forward in our new life without our loved ones can be complicated and overwhelming. Gratefully, there are tools you can utilize to support you in your journey.


Finding a physical activity that feels manageable and enjoyable to you is an excellent way to address grief brain. Remember those neurological pathways and chemicals? The brain is looking for some positive change. Exercise will increase those feel-good endorphins and help clear your mind of the darkness and despair you’ve been feeling. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, you can feel reborn.


Your mind and body have been through a lot. As it resets and adjusts to life moving forward, a regular good night’s sleep will be an excellent ally. Be sure to create a safe and inviting environment that will be conducive to good rest. Add soothing scents such as lavender. Remove screen time to help quiet your mind. Let go of your inbox for the night, there’s always tomorrow!

Accept Help

Going through grief can leave you feeling like you have the world's weight on your shoulders. It doesn’t have to be that way. When family and friends offer help, really consider accepting it. There are no points for trying to be a hero and manage it all on your own.

Your brain is overwhelmed from taking on far more than it is usually accustomed to. It needs a break! If possible, offload some of your tasks and responsibilities to friends and family who can help.


Along with exercise, consider taking care of yourself in other ways as well. Any opportunity to remove stress from your life will be a welcomed respite. Picking up your old hobbies or doing activities that bring you joy will help. It could be as simple as reading a book or taking a walk. 

You’ve been weathering a big storm and are entitled to peace and happiness. Be good to yourself. You deserve it!

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