Recently, because of hearing how the death of Kobe Bryant is affecting a lot of people (some who didn’t even know him personally), Dr. Daniel Amen, a renown neuropsychiatrist, recently wrote an article about how grief can hijack our brain and send us into our primal fight or flight response, which renders us unable to process information effectively. While a divorce doesn’t seem, on its face, that it would rise to the same emotional level as losing a loved one to death, our primal system cannot distinguish the difference – extreme loss is extreme loss. Below, Dr. Amen gives us his insight about how such a loss can trigger emotions from previous traumas and losses, what it does to our brain and some suggestions to help us begin to manage such a loss such as divorce or death of someone we know or simply admire:
“What Grief Does to the Brain”
The unspeakable loss of a loved one fires up the limbic system, especially the amygdala, the almond-shaped structure on the inside of your temporal lobes involved in emotional reactions. When the amygdala remains overactive, it can impair our ability to get past the pain. The grief we feel can become part of the story of our lives, the way we view ourselves and our place in this world. For some people, these stories can rob us of joy, hold us back, and lead to depression.
My friend Dr. Sharon May, a world-renowned relationship psychologist, calls the stories that interfere with our lives ‘dragons from the past’ that are still breathing fire on your amygdala, which can drive anxiety, anger, irrational behavior, and automatic negative reactions.
“She says, ‘All of us have dragons from the past influencing our present feelings and actions.’ Unless you recognize and tame them, and consciously calm and protect your amygdala from overfiring, they will haunt your unconscious mind and drive emotional pain for the rest of your life. What blows from an ember, or small action of another, can turn into a destructive fire of anxiety and rage.
“That’s how I’m feeling right now – like a dragon is breathing fire on my amygdala and igniting all my inner anxieties, fears, and negative thoughts. I know it is going to take time to calm my brain so I can process the grief and heal.
“Support the Healing Process”
Here are 5 ways to calm the amygdala and support the grieving process:
- Find the upside: It may seem hard right now to think there could be an upside to a terrible tragedy like the helicopter crash that took the lives of Kobe, Gigi, and 7 others. But after a loss, some people decide to make important, positive changes to their lives. In the past few days, I’ve heard many people talking about how they’re going to incorporate Kobe’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ into their daily lives – trying to be the best version of themselves at all times. For you, this might mean making health a greater priority, trying to make the most of the life you’ve been given, or showing more appreciation for the important people in your life. [Editorial from Camille: In a divorce, the upside may be that you have been in stress for a long time, knowing that your relationship has problems – you are finally going to have some resolution to that stress, or you are proud of how you are conducting yourself and modeling for your children how to deal with loss, which will help them throughout their lives]
- Start as soon as possible. People may tell you to wait to heal from grief, but if you fell and broke your arm, when would you want to start healing? Immediately! [Editorial from Camille: In divorce or death, I find that friends and family often act the opposite from what this says: they say, “Aren’t you over that yet?” No one but you can say when you are ready to move on; in fact, to brush your previous life under the rug like it never happened is not possible, and in my opinion, not healthy. Rather, if you learn, often with the help of a counselor, how to take lessons from your relationship and grow, those lessons and the experiences from the relationship you are leaving will become a part of the tapestry of who you are and you (and your children, if you have children) will be the better for the time you have taken to learn from and grow from this experience]
- Keep a brain healthy routine. It’s especially important to eat brain healthy food, take supplements, exercise, and sleep. This is often the missing link in grief recovery. When people are in pain, they will often do nearly anything to stop it. Yet, overeating, binge drinking, smoking marijuana, and other habits may put a temporary Band-Aid on the negative feelings, but often prolong the pain.
- Reach out for social support. Therapy and support groups can be helpful if they help you build skills to overcome grief.
- When grief is prolonged or becomes complicated, get professional help. In people who are more vulnerable, grief can trigger depressive episodes. [Editorial from Camille: what I have seen is that, if people cannot get through the grief process on their own (and very few can), they can get stuck, and the only way to get out of that position is with the help of a counselor. There is nothing shameful about seeking help, and if you are like many of my other clients, seeing a counselor will help you feel like a hundred pound weight has been lifted off your shoulders and you will begin the healing process. Those clients who do not do the hard work to get ‘unstuck’ from complicated grief often become bitter and even unintentionally cause psychological damage their children who witness and are sometimes even brought into the bitterness that their stuck parent feels. You and your children deserve to feel better and have the support of a professional that can help you recover from this loss.]
Final Note From Camille: While we offer support for all our clients suffering from the loss of a relationship, including referring them to counselors, we continue to find the Collaborative Divorce Process to be the best option for clients to begin the healing process well before the divorce is final and so much emotional damage is done. If you or someone you know is considering divorce, please contact our office as 940-383-2674, for information about ways we can help you.