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The impact of grief on the brain – and tips to rebuild mental sharpness

Recently I was queueing for a coffee with a friend and sharing a cute story of a robin keenly watching me as I emptied my late mum’s beloved garden pots. I laughed at the memory but stopped as I tried to recall the word ‘wheelbarrow’. It just wouldn’t come. I visualised the object but my brain wouldn’t connect with the words. I admitted to my friend that I couldn’t find the word and we gently moved on but it played on my mind afterwards.

Two weeks later I was invited to an impromptu webinar on love for Valentine’s Day, as you do! I described a mother’s love for a child and how it was so different to that of a partner. I wasn’t as articulate as usual and struggled to get my point across. The next speaker acknowledged my contribution and summarised my input, using the phrase ‘unconditional love’. The penny dropped. That was the phrase that wouldn’t come. Again, I was frustrated with myself and was desperate to know where my sharp thoughts and previous articulate self had gone.

Having suffered three bereavements in seven months I understood the impact of early grief on the brain. The shock, numbness and sheer exhaustion produced a ‘grief fog’. I was now 18 months post my first loss and I wanted to explore why my cognitive functioning was still impaired and if there was anything I could do to regain my sharpness.

Fight or flight mode becomes the norm

Grief and traumatic loss have a profound impact on the brain’s functioning. The fight or flight survival mode is triggered in the amygdala, the part of the brain which regulates our emotions. This is a normal protective process following trauma, but it can result in hypervigilance where anxiety takes centre stage. It’s described as your brain performing like a smoke alarm and being on hyper alert mode. The issue is that this can become our default setting where the nerve paths are rewired to respond in this way. It is also an involuntary process, so not under our conscious control.

The mental processes that enable us to plan, focus our attention, communicate fluently, make decisions and juggle tasks are left floundering. This is because all of our brain’s focus is redirected to ‘survival’.

The impact of chronic fight or flight has been studied extensively and this stress response has been found to be present many years post loss. Fortunately, there is hope and a way forward to rebuild our functioning.

Reprogramming your brain after loss

There has also been much research that explores how the brain can be remodelled so the neural connections are rewired away from survival mode. It has been compared to having speech therapy, where the brain has to lay down new connections through learning techniques, practice and repetition. This remodelling of neural connections is known as neuroplasticity, a reprogramming of the brain.

The possibility to reinvent yourself away from the trauma response brings great hope. It is often referred to as emotional restoration or just plain healing. It does take a concerted effort and an investment of time and energy but the activities to get you there can be weaved into your daily life and even bring new experiences and connections.

Learning activities to rebuild mental sharpness

A key part of the healing approach focuses on using learning as the foundation for forming new paths in the brain and developing neuroplasticity. When we undertake learning activities, our creativity is enhanced alongside our problem-solving skills. But it is important when seeking out a learning opportunity to get the balance between challenge and ease so that you can cope and are not overwhelmed by the task in hand.

Here are some suggestions for learning activities:

  • Learning a new skill or taking up a hobby, such as craft or baking – I’ve recently taken up crochet and after some initial frustration with the technique I’m now absorbed and find it calms my mind.

  • Make art – picking up pens, paints or even simple doodling with a biro. If you need some inspiration or guidance, grown-up colouring books are a good place to start or use YouTube to learn particular techniques. The Ollie Foundation also runs online wellbeing sessions to help your mind rest and relax.

  • Video games – whether it’s car races or building virtual worlds, video games can teach your brain new skills and get you absorbed in a way that switches your brain off from daily tasks. No need to go out and buy a games console, check out apps and online games to find one that piques your interest.

  • Learn a new language – this can be quite a daunting task and one you shouldn’t necessarily go into wanting to reach fluency level. But if you start small and use gamified apps to support and encourage your learning, it will become an enjoyable part of your routine. Duolingo and Babbel are good places to start.

  • Making music – playing an instrument requires deep concentration and exercises your memory. If you played an instrument as a child, why not pick it up again? Or you could join a community choir as a fun way to switch off and it will boost your energy too.

Mindful activities to relax your mind

Activities that help you be present in the moment actually reduce the size and impact of your amygdala so that your emotions are more regulated. This leads to your mind and state being more calm, peaceful, and centred. Mindfulness is something you can build into your daily tasks, but it also helps to seek out specific mindful activities to carve out time for your brain to relax.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Being outside in nature helps us use all our senses – I like mindful leaf exploring. Simply looking at the leaves on the floor and trees around me and taking time to observe and feel them helps me become absorbed in the moment and takes me away from any anxieties.

  • Yoga and meditation – these are the most traditional form of mindfulness activity. Even if you are not a big yogi, simply sitting still and stretching your body and breathing deeply can help your mind rest. Listening to a meditation before I go to sleep settles my mind and has really improved my sleep.

  • Jigsaws – getting absorbed in gentle problem solving, seeing new patterns and possibilities, and focusing on something tangible away from screens and other stresses can help calm the mind. I’d suggest starting small, not more than 500 pieces to avoid frustration and get a sense of achievement. It also helps to work on it in small doses, step away when it isn’t helping bring calm anymore.

  • Pets – not strictly an activity but surrounding yourself with the pets you love can bring calm, especially when cuddling or stroking them, or walking together. There is an undeniable calming nature in the unconditional love they show to you and vice versa.

Activities to alter the brain’s processes

There are also activities you can undertake that can help reprogramme your brain away from fight or flight mode and lay down new pathways. These can be a mix of rest-based activities, finding escapism and introducing new experiences.

  • Visiting new places – this broadens your view, provides novel stimuli and new environments. It could be a holiday or a day trip somewhere closer by or even exploring a new park in your town.

  • Reading fiction – increases and enhances brain connectivity by providing escapism and new virtual places to explore. Reading can be a challenge when you’re grieving but audiobooks are a great alternative.

  • Brain activities – like crosswords, sudoku or Wordle can give you short bursts of objective focus away from emotions. They also enhance problem-solving skills and have been proven to boost neuroplasticity.

  • Dancing and exercise classes – this provides a focus on following instructions and forces your brain to remember techniques or routines. The use of movement and ‘doing’ over simply thinking has a combined impact on building new pathways.

  • Using your non dominant hand for tasks – such as brushing your teeth, hoovering or eating lays new pathways, even if it does make you feel a bit silly!

Research has shown that it can take at least 40 repetitions or 21 days before a new neural path, or habit is formed so patience is key. In the meantime, be gentle with yourself, give people the heads up that you aren’t as sharp as you were previously. I have found that generally they are kind and patient.

You can also set yourself up for success by using reminders and making lots of lists to help you remember things. While you may be forever changed by your loss and your cognitive function might not be exactly the same as before, have faith that you can and will function well again. Enjoy taking part in some of these new activities to get you there.


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