Our Brain’s Ability to Heal a Broken Heart

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Have you ever felt a grief over loss so invasive that it tends to topple any upbeat move you attempt to escape it’s throbbing ache? Jamie Anderson said it best, “Grief is just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All that love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and that hollow part in your chest.  Grief is just love with no place to go.”

Some people hobble into their day with enough sorrow, stress and regret to crush any new realities of love that may exist for them on the other side of sad. Teens drop out of school in record highs, with unresolved hurts, disappointed parents leave marriages, leaders hide in their offices and plot against those they’d pledged to serve, and too few find love’s unique stepping stones past grief.  Then when hearts break, we lose a close friend, or a pet dies, we tend to build blame, loneliness, or guilt, rather than process feelings or capitalize on our brain’s ability to reboot life after loss.

How we respond to sorrow impacts us physically, cognitively, behaviorally, socially, and philosophically.

While we cannot replace the hole in our heart from loss, and we cannot replace what is gone, our brain can rewire for a new reality. Grief counselors assure us that over time we’ll have more good days than bad. Traditional grief models, however, fail to include the brain’s awesome capability to help us into new relationships, walk with change, or grow stronger in ways that fit our uniqueness. Most would agree that grief demands an intense emotional response to endure the crushing pain of loss. Lessor known, is how we differ in response to emotional, spiritual, and psychological journeys to discover tangible healing on the other side of sorrow. New neural insights however, may offer a rejuvenating response to sorrow that fits our personal path beyond grief.  How so?

Central to brain based approaches lies the reality that we all differ, there is no one size to fit all, and sometimes we learn by risking mistakes as we step beyond old or broken responses. Some people may recoil into depression that clings to their soul for years because of challenges grief carries, or responses based in guilt or lack of confidence. Others may avoid sorrow’s healing demands altogether in an effort to be productive, happy, positive, or successful. Let’s face it, grief comes with hard chugging and pulls us into messy potholes at times!

Faith, family and friends certainly offer us amazing love and support that cannot be underestimated, when loss crushes from every emotional angle. Have you noticed that those who help most here, simply love us?  They’ll toss out questions such as, Are you OK? that allow us to differ by how we respond.  They care in fun ways that make us feel unconditionally appreciated for who we are rather than expect us to follow water-tight answers that rarely fit our situation. Capture4

My own tragic experiences of severe loss as a young child, plus a lifetime of brain based research, as well as observations of some who seem to remain crippled by loss, compels me to look into how our brains come equipped to heal our hearts. Add what we now know about the brain’s awesome capability, to observations of those who find greatest healing freedom, and we can find tips to cobble together yet another possibility that turns the dial away from sad. Most agree, problems such as lasting depression, or chronic unforgiveness, can limit us longtime and dangerously if we ignore or deny loss so that a stress chemical, cortisol slams our brains into danger zones – over prolonged intervals of grief. To help us face grief’s initial force, cortisol acts as a short-term elixir. It enables us to survive emotional trauma and prevents us from falling into depression or other emotional dilemmas when we’re most vulnerable. How so?

Initially, cortisol helps us survive extreme loss, pain, loneliness, or despair. Some may experience anger while others feel hopeless, as cortisol-driven tears, for instance help us to simply stand against the backlash of sorrow’s first strikes. While crying offers one cleansing process, it’s essential to also hold in the other hand, hope which is fueled by serotonin chemicals.

Serotonin (or aha) expectations or hope, enables us to open our minds to see exciting new possibilities beyond artesian-depth loss. Believers can sometimes see grief through a window of grace that adds sweetness to transform their view from hopeless to hopeful.

For instance,  I could not bear to climb the steps where my friend lost her life, without unbearable heartache and sorrow initially. Only when I re-framed these same steps and viewed them not as tragedy but rather as Robyn‘s stairway to an eternity heaven where she enjoys perfect love, could I walk on the steps and sense her characteristic smile again.

There is no set time-line to leave tears behind or embrace hope.

See how cortisol holds you down? And good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. No question, we’ll likely revert back and forth between hope and despair for a time. One day we’ll feel tossed back and forth into choppy cortisol seas that attempt to sink us. The next day we may spot serotonin supplies of hope that lift us to reach beyond our fierce storm. The back and forth reality that allows for differences, also shows why five lock- step-stages in the traditional grief model, cannot describe the turbulent grief process for many of us. Why should we care?

Brain Based Possibilities for Healing from Loss  

Brain based approaches to grief allow us to feel the depths of our pain while at the same time nudging us toward reflection that balances pain today with possibilities that could follow tomorrow. Despair yields to comfort when we can spot hope ahead. Feelings of pain through loss are as natural as touching a hot surface in error. We either feel them, or deny and force them down, where they consume our amygdala and pop up painfully as soon as we walk into similar situations. That’s because our brain’s amygdala (sometimes called the seat of emotions) stores our every response to pain. To grieve is to bring those emotions to the surface and allow ourselves to feel them for as long as we need.  Simply stated, brain based grieving offers a balance between sad feelings and adventurous expectations that help us embrace our new reality on the other side of loss. Over time, our newly formed memories will replace broken-hearted rags of grief, and healthy emotional responses will suddenly clothe us again for unexpected melodies in our new journey forward. Have you seen it?

It’s no secret that crying stores sad responses that add more tears and sorrow to any similar challenges in our amygdala. That’s why we cry over loss for a time only, while expecting joy to follow in the morning. No magic formula here though. The gaps between crying and chasing joyful adventures will differ for each of us. Yet when hope and curious expectation stores  responses for your future reality more than tears store feelings of loss, the brain’s plasticity – or its ability to change itself, leaps to help us build new directions. Plasticity reboots our brain for our new reality – based on every action we take that is embedded in that reality. So, for instance, my recent loss of Dr. Robyn McMaster a lifetime friend and awesome fellow-leader at the Mita International Brain Based Center, holds memories of love in life-changing adventures that will one-day bat last again, in spite of sadness and loss that fill my soul at the moment.

A brain based bereavement process finds safe channels to let out deep emotions, while hooking fun, fresh adventures onto hope and wonder about a new reality that side-steps depression. How so?

When We’re Ready to Step Forward Again

When our time is right, and we’re ready to move forward, we often enjoy creative adventures that include innovative activities from our multiple intelligences.  Let’s say we decide to survey our intelligences and then use a new one today. OK, you are already stepping away from misery to a mindset you deserve! Your amazing brain will do the rest.

Plasticity (or the brain’s ability to change itself) will respond by upgrading our brains for more uses of that chosen intelligence, going forward. We simply have to give brains a chance. For instance, we might listen to or create music to share our feelings, log the best parts of each new day based on what we learned from loss, paint our thoughts and desires to connect to joy again, capture pictures of how  we feel, what we hope to attain, and what we are learning through loss.

It’s actually quite straightforward to remap a painful memory – with a comforting memory that offers hope. As a child I suffered loss beyond words in key areas of my life and my imagination often helped me to make new choices for hope. For instance, I could look past daily brokenness in my own home by dreaming I’d live in a fine castle one day. Sometimes I’d even build my castle in woods behind my home. Just as I imagined with my visual or spatial IQ, or built castles with kinesthetic IQ, you too can enjoy remapped adventures from each of your multiple intelligences.  You’ll even find joy at times in some small memory of what you had in past, and you’ll be strong enough to face the new reality of fun new experiences you can expect to define your future. Brain based approaches allow grief to carry us into life-changing places we’ve never imagined, and collect memories there while holding onto cherished experiences from our past. How does it work?

Brain based bereavement comes with a series of choices, whenever you feel ready to take that first small step away from pain and sorrow. Remember, at first, crying and shock appears to be our only choice – along with all those chaotic emotions that chase us down like a monster under our bed. Brain based choices simply offer us new possibilities to reboot our sense of life and walk you into a rejuvenated place of well-being. Often it’s a better place than we left behind!

The best part? We can make new choices in our own time. Just as our brain comes wired just right to fit us, so will our journey past sorrow be unique. Luckily our brain comes equipped to heal the psychic damage a broken heart leaves behind, through simple choices that we make for change. In fact, with every choice, even in spite of all the well-intentioned but ill-fitted advice that keeps us sad, our best timetable for each step forward will be our own custom made approach design with its benefits in mind. Hopefully these few brain based suggestions will help you and me to choose well the next time we face tragedy or need a healthy dose of healing.

Looking for dozens of brain based tasks to help individuals or teams move beyond loss? If so My TpT site offers a deck of 50 brain based tasks to heal a broken heart – with posters and grief guides ready to roll in your next grief session or class.


Related tool: Yearly planner with brain boosters and prompts to reboot your brain so that you tap and develop hidden and unused capabilities.

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Created by Ellen Weber, Brain Based Tasks for Growth Mindset