Remember those tv commercials with the egg frying in a pan and the caption: “This is your brain on drugs”?

Well, have you ever wondered what your brain looks like on grief?

Grief Brain

Yes, there is such a thing as Grief Brain. The jolt of a sudden loss causes your pituitary gland to release the hormone adrenocorticotrophin (ATCH). This hormone then sends a signal to the adrenal gland to flood your brain with cortisol, a stress hormone. 

An overload of cortisol can result in the bone-tired fatigue so many grievers report. Your overwhelmed immune system may falter, causing chronic inflammation and other health concerns. 

Because grief is an intense, persistent stressor, the body remains flooded with cortisol. 

Perhaps this is the reason that nearly every person taking the Grief Awareness Assessment rates overall tenseness as very high. 

But you can quickly regain calmness and inner balance, despite grief brain. Use the breathing techniques and self-reflective questions I share below.

Grief Brain Research

In her book The Grieving Brain, Mary Frances O-Conner, neuroscientist and psychologist, gives us insight into what happens when a loved one dies. She wanted to understand the why of grief rather than just the what. She felt certain that “part of the answer could be found in the brain, the seat of our thoughts and feelings, motivations and behaviors.” 

Her research now confirms that with a profound loss, the brain experiences two opposing accounts. One part of the brain knows that this person, pet, or dream is gone because it is dead. Another believes that it will return. It is simply away for a while. 

She explains that our brain ‘maps’ our relationships. One aspect of this map is being able to find that person. To know where they are in time and space. 

Studies have validated the presence of object-trace cells. The brain cells that fire when we go to a place, like our child’s bedroom expecting his backpack to be on his bed. These neurons keep firing until the brain learns and updates the map that our loved one is never going to be in the room again. 

Thus, we feel like we are going crazy while our brain rewires itself. The longing is painful. We want them back. The confusion confounding.

My recent experience

In late March, I experienced a jolt of loss. A carefully contracted business relationship suddenly dissolved. I showed up for a meeting and was told the person who contracted with me was leaving. I literally felt like I’d been punched in the gut.

It seemed like the growth trajectory for Integrated Wellbeing Institute was leveled by an earthquake. Suddenly, the connection to this person, events, and outcomes was gone – the platform collapsed. 

Not only was I confused, but my brain felt foggy. Worry, doubt, and fear washed over me like a tsunami. I was in the grip of grief brain. 

So, what to do? Practice these two techniques


#1 – The Straw Breath

Every morning when I woke up, I implemented what’s called, The Straw Breath.

  1. Exhale deeply.
  2. Inhale through the nose, counting to four, noticing the temperature of the air.
  3. Exhale out with lips puckered around an imaginary straw.

Research has shown that when overwhelmed by grief and loss our blood pressure goes up, we may experience heart palpitations and panic attacks. The Straw Breath technique minimizes anxiety and reduces blood pressure in minutes. I practice it often to achieve calmness. And my clients find it helpful too. 

After doing several sequences of Straw Breath, I then ask four questions. Each question provides information for me about my inner state. They allow my brain to re-connect with Wellbeing within and begin creating a new map for the future of Integrated Wellbeing Institute.

#2 – Ask these four questions:

  1. What emotional state am I in?
  2. How old do I feel?
  3. What would I LIKE to have happen?
  4. What do I need to know right now?

After asking the last question, taught by Suzanne Gieseman, I was still for 3 minutes listening to the guidance from Spirit, the Wellbeing within. 

Remember, you are never alone. You are not broken by this loss. You are broken open like a seed to grow in Awareness.

Discover the Twelve Truths of Grieving to give you an extra tool to turn to on your trek beyond grief and loss by clicking here: 

Love all around, above, below, to the left and to the right, before you and behind you,

Our clients arrive as fragments of their former selves. Many report, “Part of me is missing,” feeling like part of their body departed with this death. 

Indeed, as a certified somatic therapist, I have felt the absence of life in the entire side of a grieving mother’s body. It was as if I was seeing a hip, but when I attempted to cradle it with touch, there was only a haze between my hands. When the client was asked, “What are you noticing in the space between my hands?,” the reply was, “Emptiness.” 

If you’re struggling with the emotional process of grief...

I want to share a free gift with you that can help you recognize the physical, cognitive and emotional reactions you may be experiencing. You’ll also take away prompts to use daily along your journey.

Click the button below to get started!