January 15, 2017
The Myth of "Holding on" to the Past : Neuro-science and the Grieving Process
The Myth of "Holding on to" the Past
It's the new year and many of you would like to leave the old year behind. Some may be frustrated that it is hard to "let go". One common cliche that I'm sure that you've seen or heard before is the one posted above. And it's true that you can't move on in life until are freed from the weight of the past. However, the idea that progress is restrained or blocked because we "hold on to" the past is not only misleading but is also fundamentally mistaken about the psychology of grieving and loss. A better way to understand our stuckness is that the grief we experience after a loss has a hold on us. Or, even better, that the light, the hope, which lets us see and believe in the positive things in our life has gone out.
Recent developments in neuro-science have helped us to better understand how it is we become trapped in the darkness of the past and unable to see our way forward. Serious loss, whether it comes in the form of a death of a relationship, a job or physical health, to name but a few kinds of bereavement , is traumatic to our brain. It temporarily causes the connection between our perceptions and our neo-cortex (the human part of our brain) to be disrupted and leaves us to navigate life with pre-human part of our brain called the amygdale.
While the neo-cortex is able to evaluate incoming perceptional data and put it into a reasonable context, the amygdale operates within a panic mode which is only able to determine if one should attack or run away. Life lived under the control of the amygdale is terror-filled and hopeless. Gradually (and the time needed varies dramatically from individual to individual) the connection to the neo-cortex is reestablished and the ability to reason and experience hope and purpose are restored.
Remaining physically active, journaling , psychotherapy, medication are some of the ways that speed recovery but, again, it is very important for the grieving person to have the support of understanding and accepting friends and family who realize that it is not the person's fault or the lack of desire which is responsible for the delay of recovery to happen. Grieving in most cases is a very slow process and is frustrating not only to the person who is going through it but also for those who care about and love the individual.
Patience is the primary virtue to exhibit with someone who is grieving. Being around someone who is stuck in the pain of loss is difficult but it is important for us to deal with and process our frustrations apart from the griever. Blaming or suggesting that the person in grief should just "get over it" as the radio host Dr. Laura used to do is not only insensitive but is essentially counter-productive.
When a person can accept that emotional losses take time to heal just as physical injuries do, and when they cannot be weighed down by self-criticism that they "don't want" to move on, the process of regaining the experience of hope is accelerated and time needed to get back to normal is shortened.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C. 1 15 2017