This Is Your Brain And Body On Grief

Grief impacts the entire body.

I lost my cat this year. I’d had him since 2011 and he’d seen me through health problems, heartache, and three house moves. We were really close. Closer than I had ever previously thought was possible with a pet, actually.

His death wasn’t quite sudden but it did only happen a couple of weeks after I’d been told he was dying. I’d always dreaded the day that I’d lose him but not even really having the time to say goodbye or see him out the way that I felt that he deserved broke my heart.

His name was Collie. He wasn’t my first loss, and he certainly won’t be my last, but with losing him came the heavy feelings of grief and loss that are now all-too-familiar to me.

Ultimately, as much as I’ve tried to control my grief and keep myself together, as I cried on the floor listening to Taylor Swift sing the words, “You’re the loss of my life”, I was quickly reminded that grief fundamentally changes the brain and I don’t have much say in that.

What happens to your brain when you’re grieving

Speaking to Scientific American, psychologist Mary O’Connor said that historically, grief was thought of as another difficult life event to deal with, on top of others. However, these days, it’s considered to be something that has been taken away from us, rather than added to our plate.

O’Connor said: “When people say, “I feel like part of myself is missing,” this may not be only a metaphor.

“It may in fact be part of how the brain has encoded that relationship, so the absence of that person is like an amputation rather than simply an additional stressor.”

Grief has physical impacts, too. According to the American Brain Foundation: “The brain interprets traumatic loss as a threat to survival and defaults to protective survival and defence mechanisms.

“This response engages the fight or flight mechanism, which increases blood pressure and heart rate and releases hormones.”

Another thing that I have noticed with this loss and every one before it is I am suddenly impaired. My memory is terrible, I lose my way mid-sentence, and my sleep is disrupted for months on end.

According to the American Brain Foundation, this is normal. They said: “Grief and loss affect the brain and body in many different ways. They can cause changes in memory, behaviour, sleep, and body function, affecting the immune system as well as the heart.

“It can also lead to cognitive effects, such as brain fog. The brain’s goal? Survival.”

How to recover from grief and loss

For those of us dealing with grief, the urge is often there to hide and isolate ourselves from loved ones. To hold our grief close to us and nothing else. However, according to grief charity Sue Ryder: “It helps if you’ve got support within your own family and friends, as well as from others such as a support group. This is because friends and family are the people who will be there for you in the long term.”

However, if you don’t have people that you trust, reaching out to a helpline or joining a support group could make a huge difference. Grief is something we’ll all experience but we don’t have to do it alone.

The NHS recommends these steps for finding support and comfort:

Help and support:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
  • CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on