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Grief in the Time of Lockdown (and the impact on your brain)

Many of us have, by now, settled uncomfortably into lockdown. In previous blogs, we’ve covered why social isolation can be damaging, as well as how to cope with stress productively. However, as a popular Harvard Business Review article pointed out, we’re also experiencing grief.

Some of the causes of our grief are obvious: we may have already lost a loved one to the pandemic or fear losing one soon and many of us have lost our financial security. More still, we have also lost our freedom - missing graduations, cancelling travel plans, rearranging birthing plans and postponing weddings. These are all valid reasons to grieve, but there are even more subtle things giving us this sense of loss. We’ve lost our sense of normality with things that used to be an everyday occurrence for us: touching a doorknob, hugging a friend and going grocery shopping. That these things are now so different or not even possible anymore is also a valid reason to grieve. Added to this is uncertainty about the future. We don’t know when this will end, or what the world will look like when it does. As David Kessler points out in the HBR interview, we are experiencing grief on the macro and micro levels.

What is my brain doing?

When we grieve, our brains experience reduced levels of chemicals that make us feel good (such as oxytocin and dopamine) while stress-related hormones (such as adrenaline and cortisol) increase. This is further compounded by the social isolation and stress we’re experiencing as a result of lockdown and general uncertainty about the future.

Our sympathetic nervous system is more active, meaning we’re in a constant state of emotional arousal and unrest. This can make it difficult for us to slow down, relax, or process our feelings. Grief is also physically painful to us: Studies have shown that it can activate parts of our brain that process physical pain. As a result, we tend to act irrationally. This can take many forms, such as panic-buying every tin of baked beans you can get your hands on, or lashing out at loved ones.

In extreme cases of grief, people can experience Broken Heart Syndrome, where the intense stress their brain is under can cause abnormal heart beat patterns and chest pain.

Our brains try to protect us from this – we wouldn’t have survived as a species if we completely shut down during difficult situations. As a result, we repress difficult memories, which can make it harder to process the complicated feelings caused by those memories.

What do we do about it?

Naturally, coping with something as complicated as grief isn’t straightforward. There are a couple of best-practice suggestions by psychologists, however.

First, remind yourself that this crisis is temporary. Even if we know that intellectually, it can be helpful to reassure ourselves of that fact.

Second, connect with the feelings your brain might be protecting you from. If you feel up to it, you can journal or talk to a close friend about how you’re both feeling. At the same time, you don’t need to be wallowing in your feelings 24/7: make time for things that make you happy and distract you as well. Creative pursuits and time in the sun and fresh air are encouraged – as far as the lockdown will allow.

Finally, try reach some sort of acceptance. This is easier said than done, but practical steps include acknowledging what you can do in the present and what you can’t control, then focusing on the former. David Kessler has also added a sixth stage to the process of grief: meaning Are we closer to our loved ones than before? Reconnecting with old friends? Creating more meaningful art? Appreciating what we have more? Finding meaning in our struggles helps us to heal from them.

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