Dealing with loss and grief is a universal human experience, and understanding how our brain processes these emotions can provide valuable insights into the healing process. In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the concept of the "seven stages of grief," which describes the emotional journey a person often goes through when confronted with loss.
Shock and Denial
The initial stage of grief is characterised by shock and disbelief, as the mind struggles to understand the reality of the loss.
During this stage, the brain enters a state of protective denial, shielding us from the overwhelming emotional impact.
Shock and denial stage activates the brain's defence mechanisms, such as the release of stress hormones, to help us cope with the initial trauma.
Pain and Guilt
As denial subsides, the second stage brings intense emotional pain and feelings of guilt. The brain processes grief by activating regions associated with emotional regulation, such as the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex.
These areas of the brain play a crucial role in evaluating and assigning emotional significance to the loss, leading to feelings of anguish and self-blame.
Anger and Bargaining
The third stage manifests as anger and a search for meaning. The brain's limbic system, responsible for regulating emotions, becomes highly active during this stage.
This heightened emotional state often leads to expressions of anger towards oneself, others, or even the situation itself. Additionally, the brain engages in bargaining, attempting to find ways to reverse or prevent the loss, seeking a sense of control in the face of helplessness.
Also read: Overcome Sorrow and Grief With These 6 Healing Herbs
Depression and Loneliness
The fourth stage of grief is characterised by deep sadness, despair, and feelings of isolation. The brain processes these emotions by releasing neurotransmitters like serotonin, which affects mood regulation.
The prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and self-awareness, also plays a role, leading to introspection and a sense of emptiness. The brain's reward system may be disrupted, contributing to the loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities.
People begin to encounter small glimpses of confidence and the potential of recovery in the fifth stage. The brain's neuroplasticity comes into play as it adapts and rewires connections between neurons, allowing happy feelings to form gradually.
During this stage, the brain's frontal regions, responsible for cognitive control and planning, regain some functionality, enabling individuals to envision a future beyond their grief.
Reconstruction and Working Through
During this stage, the brain actively engages in the process of reconstructing a new reality without the presence of what has been lost. The prefrontal cortex, involved in problem-solving and decision-making, helps individuals adapt to the changes and make meaning from the loss.
Neural networks associated with resilience and coping strategies become more prominent, allowing for a gradual shift towards acceptance and a sense of control.
Acceptance and Hope
The final stage brings acceptance of the loss and a renewed sense of hope for the future. The brain's neural circuits associated with emotional regulation and resilience have undergone significant rewiring.
This rewiring allows people to incorporate their loss into their identity and go forward with a fresh feeling of purpose and hope.
Also read: Grief Affects Mental As Well As Physical Health
The seven stages of grief offer a framework to understand the emotional journey individuals undergo when facing loss. From shock and denial to acceptance and hope, each stage reflects the brain's complex processing of grief. By comprehending these stages and the underlying neurological processes, we can foster empathy, support, and healing for ourselves and others as we navigate the challenging path towards recovery.