What Happens To Your Brain When You Lose Someone You Love

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sad woman pushing hair to side of face

By Thomas Crook, PhD

Recently, my 58-year-old younger brother, a fit-and-sturdy Marine combat veteran, was diagnosed with lung cancer and died.

Two weeks later, after an almost entirely disease-free life, I had to undergo eye surgery for cataracts.

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Since then, I've been thinking a lot about the inevitable setbacks we all encounter and how our brains deal with them. 

What happens to your brain when you lose someone you love

Researchers completed an intriguing study that illustrates just how profound and widespread the effect of negative personal events can be and how your brain reacts to grief.

Three finance professors from major business schools tracked the performance of 75,000 Danish companies in the 2 years before and after the CEO had experienced a family death. Financial performance declined 20% after the loss of a child, 15% after the death of a spouse, and almost 10% after the demise of any other family member.

Indeed, when brain imaging studies are done on people who are grieving, increased activity is seen along a broad network of neurons. These link areas are associated not only with mood but also with memory, perception, conceptualization, and even the regulation of the heart, the digestive system, and other organs.

This shows the pervasive impact loss or even disappointment can have. And the more we dwell on negative thoughts, the more developed these neural pathways become. The result can be chronic preoccupation, sadness, or even depression.

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So how can we learn to deal with loss, disappointment, and everyday setbacks more constructively? Keep in mind these coping strategies for grief, which are working for me:

Be on the alert for "intruders." 

As soon as you recognize an intrusive negative thought, visualize a stop sign. Even go so far as to say "Stop!" if it helps. Or try wearing a rubber band around your wrist and snap yourself out of it.

Schedule your sad memories. 

Just as you don't immediately indulge every pang of hunger, put off sad remembrances for a time when you don't need to be productive or engaged (say, during your lunch hour).

Never examine such thoughts before bed, however. This is an invitation for negativity and blame to gather strength. Prior to sleep, electrical activity diminishes in brain regions associated with analytical reasoning, and we become less objective.

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Don't tolerate self-accusing or superstitious thoughts. 

Examples of these would be If only I had been, or Bad things happen in threes. Such thinking has no logical basis or benefit.

View setbacks as opportunities. 

Effectively dealing with difficulties that don't incapacitate you will make you stronger.

Finally, keep in mind that during these emotionally vulnerable times, we all create illusions. We focus almost exclusively on how wonderful those who've disappeared from our lives made us feel, and we convince ourselves that no one could ever affect us like that again.

I miss my brother, no doubt about it. I know that I can't avoid illness and death in my life, but I can choose how to deal with them. I'm lucky to have known my brother for 58 years, but I'm not going to dwell on the thought that our time together could have been longer.

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Dr. Thomas Crook is a major contributor to the field of memory research and is the author of The Memory Advantage.

This article was originally published at Prevention. Reprinted with permission from the author.