Episode 74: The Science & Process Of Healing From Grief | Huberman Lab

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Key Takeaways

  • In many ways, grief is like a phantom limb – after amputation, you will feel like your limb is still there when it’s gone
  • Five stages of grief (non-linear & not everyone makes their way through all stages): (1) denial; (2) anger; (3) bargaining; (4) depression; (5) acceptance
  • People move through grief at different rates due to life circumstances, hormones, etc.
  • Grief is not just for people– you can be immensely attached & grieve a person, animal, or thing that is no longer in life for any reason (death, rehoming, lost object)
  • Grief is both a state of pain and a state of wanting which drives the activation state – we seek out how to resolve the pain
  • Once someone is gone, we’re put into an action state of looking for and seeking that person, expecting them to contact us or see them when we’d expect
  • All relationships are mapped through the brain and body through three dimensions: (1) space; (2) time; (3) closeness (emotional)
  • To get through grief, we have to remap our attachment– grief is the process of uncoupling and reordering our relationship from space, time, and closeness (e.g., not expecting to see them at a certain place or time)
  • Get close to and deliberately experience attachment to that person/object/animal – don’t distract yourself or focus on counterfactual thinking (i.e., “what ifs”)
  • As always, sleep is critical to regulating hormones, neuroplasticity, and setting yourself up for the healthiest overall autonomic state which will help you navigate grief (and life)

Introduction

Dr. Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. is a Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine. His lab focuses on neural regeneration, neuroplasticity, and brain states such as stress, focus, fear, and optimal performance.

In this episode, Andrew Huberman discusses how we conceptualize grief, emotionally and logically.  He lays out the neuroscience and psychology of grief and provides healthy science-based tools to assist with the grieving process, including how to reframe and remap the relationship with those we have lost while maintaining a strong emotional connection to them.

Host: Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab)

What Is Grief?

  • Grief is more than sadness; it’s a state of yearning and desire for something that is just outside your reach until you remap your relationship with that person or thing
  • We all experience various levels of grief at some stage in our lives
  • Grief can change our entire relationship to life depending on the significance of the event or tragedy
  • Two categories of grief: (1) complicated grief – grief does not resolve itself after a prolonged period of time (about 10% of the population experience this type); (2) non-complicated grief – while there’s no timeline, mourning, and bereavement that still allows you to maintain functions in life
  • Surprisingly, we should consider grief as a motivational state – it’s a desire for something (and not actually a desire to have the person back)
  • “Grief is a distinct psychological and physiological event in the brain and body from depression.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman
  • Grief rarely responds well to antidepressants
  • Five stages of grief (non-linear & not everyone makes their way through all stages): (1) denial; (2) anger; (3) bargaining; (4) depression; (5) acceptance
    • Denial: refusal to accept a new reality that a person or animal is gone
    • Anger: recognition that a person or animal is gone; the body goes into motivated state
    • Bargaining: refusing to accept reality & wondering what you should’ve/could’ve done
    • Depression: “why should I go on living?”
    • Acceptance: cognitively and emotionally accepting life will continue

 Grief As A Motivational State

  • Brain areas associated with motivation and action are the primary areas associated with stages of grief
  • Thought experiment: imagine you are very thirsty, and you see a cold glass of water near you, and you reach for the water, but it somehow keeps shifting and you never quite get it
  • Grief is both a state of pain and a state of wanting which drives the activation state – we seek out how to resolve the pain
  • Activation of reward centers and dopamine puts us into an anticipatory state, waiting for something to happen – as well as action
  • Attachment and breaking attachment are governed by three dimensions: (1) space; (2) time; (3) closeness – interestingly, changes in physical space, time, and emotional distance activates the same brain area (inferior parietal labial)
  • By understanding the dimensions of attachment, we can work through and understand or remap relationships and orient through the grief process
  • A powerful aspect of attachment is what it will take to see someone again and when we will see them again
  • To get through grief, we have to remap our attachment – grief is the process of uncoupling our relationship from space, time, and closeness
  • Once someone is gone, we’re put into an action state of looking for and seeking that person, expecting them to contact us or see them when we’d expect – this is grief

Brief Neuroscience And Hormones Of Attachment & Grief

  • Trace cells: activated when we expect something to be in a given location but it’s not there – unique because neurons are generally activated when something is there, not when it’s missing like with trace cells
  • People who experience deep grief (especially relative to others grieving) have been shown to have heightened oxytocin receptors in brain regions responsible for craving and pursuit
  • People with higher baseline levels of anxiety (not depression) tend to experience complicated grief and prolonged grief symptoms
  • Cortisol levels of a typical person or someone experiencing non-complicated grieving: high cortisol upon waking, reduction in cortisol by 4 pm, further reduction by 9 pm
  • Cortisol levels of someone experiencing complicated or prolonged grieving: high cortisol upon waking, and still high cortisol levels at 4 pm and 9 pm
  • This begs the question, is cortisol leading to complicated grieving or vice versa? It’s probably bidirectional – but in combination with other research, it seems high cortisol lends itself to complicated grieving
    • Lesson: get adequate sleep and establish as normal a pattern of cortisol as possible – view sunlight (or bright light) shortly after waking!

Engaging In & Moving Through Grief

  • It’s not easy for the brain to conceptualize that someone or something is gone – we understand logically but it’s hard to detach emotionally and, in our memories (based on our prior memories but not current)
  • Our brain is constantly generating expectations of the person or thing that’s gone based on our memories
  • Maintain attachment but start understanding expectation that what happened before won’t happen again: don’t detach yourself from the person or downplay your closeness or attachment
  • Set aside dedicated time (5-30 min) to feel the feelings with the following guidelines:
    • Avoid “counterfactual thinking” – AKA the “what ifs” – what if I called more? What if they took a different path home? Etc. This is an extension of guilt that strengthens bonds and makes grief more difficult
    • Feel the connection but stay connected to current space and time instead of anchoring in memories
    • Understand that you are likely to float through various states but try to come back around
    • Place notions of where that person is now – of course, this varies based on your personal beliefs
  • Allowing yourself to embrace the attachment allows up to work through the grief but we must pull the other levers of dimension – space & time – and work on adjusting our expectations of seeing the person when we expect
  • When to use breath and breathing practices:
    • Do not use it if you are grieving intensely and often in ways that are impacting your daily functions – you don’t want to increase mind-body connection and attachment
    • Use if you are having challenges accessing feelings of attachment
  • Remember, everything exists in the context of our baseline – you will always be better served if you are dialing in good sleep

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