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5 Ways to Boost Your Brain’s Grieving Process

A reader asks how to redraw the neural map more quickly after a string of losses.

Key points

  • Experiencing multiple losses in a short time is extremely challenging, so it’s natural and normal to feel overwhelmed.
  • Your brain requires lived experience and repetition to update the neural map, so you benefit from engaging with life to create your "new normal."
  • Embrace therapeutic living, such as moving your body, being in nature, and getting support, to boost your brain's grieving and rewiring process.

In response to the post, “As You Grieve, Your Brain Redraws Its Neural Map,” a reader writes:

How can my brain redraw its neural map when losses are piling on top of each other, not allowing ample time to grieve? In the past year, I've lost a sibling, a spouse, a friend, and a parent. Everything has overlapped to the point of crippling my everyday life with a seemingly endless void. How do I redraw and update faster so I can get out of this rut?

First, I’m so sorry you’ve had to endure so many significant losses in such a short period of time. That is an overwhelming amount of grief and adjustment, so it makes sense that you would want your brain to make quick work of redrawing your neural map.

Research on the neuroscience of grieving has yet to specify how the bereaved can more quickly update the brain's neural map. But we do know that your brain requires experience to update, plus there are known ways to nurture your brain's ability to form new neural connections and boost your grieving process, and perhaps these translate into facilitating the redrawing process as well. Here are five suggestions.

1. Have realistic expectations

Rest assured, with three significant losses and another on the horizon, it is natural for you to feel crippled and in a rut. And because your brain is redrawing the neural maps of four close relationships, this process will take time. You can reduce your distress by simply accepting that your grief and mourning will take as long as it takes. Life may seem hopeless as you’ll never recover what was “normal life,” but over time, your brain will update to reflect your “new normal.”

2. Engage with your “new normal”

Your conscious brain knows that your loved ones are gone. But during the formation of those deep bonds, your unconscious brain encoded the implicit knowledge that your loved ones “will always be there for you.” So whenever your brain is confronted with the fact that your loved ones are no longer “there” in the same way, you grieve. That’s why a key part of the grieving process is to redraw the neural map by overwriting it with new routines, new habits, and new predictions. For example, you might completely redo the bedroom you shared with your wife; you can reorder your daily, weekly, or monthly routines; you might seek closer relationships to others in your family or social circles; you could join a group to pursue favorite activities with new people. Leaning into your “new normal” life helps your brain accumulate new experiences, and over time, your brain will update with new neural connections. Eventually you’ll notice that your neural map is more and more reflecting your “new normal,” and those crippling pangs of grief will mellow and then recede.

3. Have faith in your brain

With realistic expectations for a lengthy and arduous grieving/redrawing process and actively engaging in your life, rest assured that your brain is qualified for the job of redrawing its neural map. Every pang of grief indicates that your brain is hard at work, rewiring its neural connections. By having faith in your brain’s expert redrawing capabilities—you can feel more patient, reassured, and compassionate with yourself.

4. Embrace therapeutic living

There are many therapeutic habits, routines, practices, and types of support that cultivate a calm brain and promote its ability to create new neural connections (neuroplasticity).

  • Daily habits such as getting sufficient sleep, eating nutritious foods, moving your body every day, and spending time outdoors.
  • Mindfulness practices, such as mindful breathing, meditation, staying in the present moment, and observing your thoughts.
  • Journaling, which can help you find the words, get clarity, and make sense of it all, rather than just getting lost in a giant blob of pain.
  • Emotional support also soothes your brain and reduces suffering, whether you lean on family or friends. Given your arduous journey, professional therapy is likely also in order.
  • Brain-based treatment for trauma, such as EMDR, might be of great benefit to you, as this could help you move forward with your life instead of continuing to feel stuck in reliving the past.

5. Seek growth

Crisis always provides opportunity for growth. Growing pains, indeed. But remember, what matters is not what happens to you, but what you do with it. Growth might include learning more about yourself, leaning into your worth, recognizing your strengths, acquiring new skills, and identifying your values, priorities, and passions so you can live your best life.

Yours is not an easy row to hoe, but with realistic expectations, engaging in life, having faith in your brain, therapeutic support, and seeking growth, you can redraw your neural map in ways that help you to heal and serve you well going forward.

More from Deborah L. Davis Ph.D.
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