• Traumatic Loss

    How Do You Heal from Traumatic Loss?

    What is Traumatic Loss?

    Traumatic loss happens when a sudden separation from a loved one occurs due to a traumatic death which results in emotional distress with an overwhelming sense of futility about the future. However, traumatic loss and grief do not just occur when someone dies.  Estrangement from a beloved relationship, divorce, life-changing illnesses, accidents, catastrophic events, or other harmful actions from other individuals can also trigger a profound grieving process. A person may experience various associated feelings ranging from anger, powerlessness, disbelief, sadness, loneliness, and emptiness. Consequently, the emotions can become overpowering, resulting in psychological disorders like depression (mood disorders) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    What Does Grief Do to Your Brain?

    Research, over time, has concluded that grief is an immensely complex emotional state which incorporates several mental functions. Some parts of the brain where grief is thought to mainly affect include the posterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex. Some of the mediated brain functions like mentalizing, recording episodic memory, and emotional processing are subsequently affected. Studies also reveal activation of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the insula when a grieving person sees a photo of a lost loved one. Accordingly, an interplay of activation of all the aforementioned brain regions has been found responsible for developing mood disorders following a traumatic loss. The ability of grief to affect cognition can also be used to explain the continued progress and adaptation of the individual to the entire grief process. With this, persons who perform poorly in cognitive tests continually may have prolonged grief severity.

    Can You Get PTSD From the Pain of the Loss?

    Yes, you can get PTSD following a traumatic loss. This arises when the grieving process and accompanying psychological disturbances persist chronically after a traumatic death or a traumatic stressor that can fit the PTSD criteria. Therein, individuals get stuck in a certain state of emotional shock, unable to process the traumatic death, and are unable to move on. Symptomatically, the grief symptoms either stagnate or get worse. Still, they do not get any better, and the individuals constantly have negative thoughts and actively avoid the emotions surrounding the death.

    What Does Grief Do to Your Body?

    Various bodily biomarkers help explain the effects of grief on one’s body. These include cardiovascular, immunological, and endocrine biomarkers. In the cardiovascular system, changes mimicking myocardial infarction may occur in what is known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which often results from separation from a loved one. For this reason, it is also referred to as “broken-heart syndrome.” Other cardiovascular markers include an increased heart rate and increased blood pressures (both systolic and diastolic). In addition, some of the already documented immune changes include increased production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which may result in an exaggerated inflammatory process in ongoing disease or a higher predisposition to inflammation than with no disease.

    Collectively, the aforementioned physiological markers coupled with psychological aspects of grief are responsible for the physical manifestations in grieving subjects. These include a higher predisposition to infections due to the interrupted immune system, palpitations (with the feeling of a racing mind as well), loss of appetite, memory changes, and constant feelings of generalized fatigue. Moreover, the individuals may also complain of increased anxiety with sleep problems and body aches.

    How Do You Heal from Traumatic Loss?

    Initially, several reactions are experienced following a traumatic death or traumatic loss, including shock, fear, anxiety, anger, and guilt. If you are struggling to heal from a traumatic loss, there are a few things you can do to help you cope. Firstly, you must find a strong support system and a confidante to talk to about your loss. Secondly, you must allow yourself to grieve in your own way and let it take as much time as you need. Do not compare your grief process with other individuals; it won’t do you any good. There is no timeline for grief. Thirdly, you can try to adopt a few new traditions and routines that will support the memory of your lost loved one, or whatever it is you are grieving over. Also, it may be helpful for you to keep a journal to put into writing some of your feelings to vent your grief. Furthermore, options to support your healing may include practicing mindfulness, exercising, affirmations, breathwork, massage/selfcare, eating nourishing meals, playing a musical instrument, and connecting with others. Lastly, if you need extra help, find a counselor that can guide you through the process and help you deal with any concerning symptoms you may be experiencing. Be gentle with yourself. If you need support, don’t be afraid to ask for it.

    Sources: Sinning et al. (2010). Tako-Tsubo syndrome: dying for a broken heart? Clin Res Cordiol. 99:771-780 | Gundel et al. (2003). Functional neuroanatomy of grief: An fMRI study. Am J Psychiatry, 160: 1946-1953.

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