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  • Writer's pictureAshley Farrar

Grief Brain is Real

Did you know that when you move your body you're maintaining and improving your brain health?


Me either!

I was so fascinated when I learned that physical activity helps your brain with learning, concentration, memory, and stress management.

This can be helpful in the best of times (we can totally use it to our advantage if we know how... I'll get to that a little more down below), and, it can be a huge help when you're experiencing something that impacts your executive functioning.

What is executive functioning?

It's a group of cognitive skills that help you to plan, focus your attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. We are always using these skills - to learn, work, and, manage daily life.

There are several executive functions, and each of us has a different profile of strengths and weaknesses (this means that you might be a strong flexible thinker, but struggle with stress tolerance, while someone else might be excellent at organization and planning but struggle with time management).

The main executive functions include emotional control, flexible thinking, goal-directed persistence, metacognition, organization, planning and prioritization, response inhibition, stress tolerance, sustained attention, task initiation, time management, and working memory.

If you're curious and want to learn more about these, the book 'Smart but Scattered' by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare give a pretty thorough review of each, and also includes a mini assessment so you can discover your own profile. Heads up that there is an old-school behavioural lens to parts of the book that isn't really my cup of tea. But, the descriptive information is super helpful and easy to understand.

Executive functioning can be impacted by many things, including (but not limited to) depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism, and... grief! If you're experiencing one (or more) of these, you might notice difficulties with getting stuff done.

Note: I'm going to focus on grief, but the information I'm sharing is relevant regardless of why you're experiencing challenges with executive functioning.

Before I knew a lot about executive functioning and how it shows up in day-to-day life, my mom and uncle died in a car accident. Not long afterwards, my sister called me and told me that she was starting to wonder if she had early-onset Alzheimer's.

She didn't (it was grief brain)... but these are the things we might wonder if nobody has let us know that grief can seriously impact the brain!

Here are some real examples of how I've observed executive functioning challenges show up in myself and the people I love.

Finding your keys in your freezer.

Not being able to prepare dinner without significant fatigue or emotional dysregulation (y'all, it takes A LOT of executive functioning to prepare food).

Feeling overwhelmed by tasks that others think are "simple" or "quick" tasks (like brushing your teeth, showering, or changing the laundry over).

Having to re-read pages of a book to know what's going on.

Losing your wallet. All the time. Everywhere. More than you ever believe could be possible. (Okay, I'm laughing here cause this one is not an example from me, and I know the person I'm thinking of will know this is about them, lol!).

Not being able to respond to texts, emails, and/or phone calls.

Wanting to do something... thinking about doing something... having a mental cheerleading session about how you're going to finally do the thing... and not doing the thing (or anything else, because you want to do the thing before any other things get done).

Using an immense amount of energy to try and maintain a sense of calm.

Finding it difficult to socialize.

Taking a long time to make sense of a complex project, the steps required, and/or your role if it's a team project.

But, remember where we started... moving your body supports executive functioning!

There are two types of movement that researchers have found to support executive functioning: complex motor skills & aerobic activity.

Complex motor skills are basically things that help you to build skills and require coordination. Examples include throwing, catching, running, crawling, dancing, skiing, skating, and my personal favourites... Pilates and Essentrics!

When you practice complex motor skills your brain is building new and complex connections that can be used at anytime (not just when you're moving your body!).

Aerobic activity is stuff that increases your breathing and heart rate. Think cardio activities like brisk walking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, shovelling your driveway, swimming, running, biking, and dancing.

When you participate in aerobic activity you are supporting yourself by:

  1. Boosting your cognitive flexibility (this helps you to shift your thinking more easily, and come up with creative thoughts and ideas).

  2. Increasing the stress tolerance of your brain and body. This means you can cope with more stress before stress hormones kick in and cause a physiological reaction (like your heart rate increasing). You're literally building capacity and resiliency!

Now, if you know me, you know that I'm a huge proponent of the idea that all movement has value. So, what's one of the things that happens when you move your body in any old way?

When you move your body in any old way, your body is completing the stress cycle.

The stress cycle is your internal (or physiological) response to both environmental and psychological stressors. Hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine start flowing, you might notice your heart rate increasing, and you might feel flushed (among other things).

If you want to know more about this, I highly recommend the book 'Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle' by Drs. Emily & Amelia Nagoski.

Everybody's threshold for stress is different and always changing (and there's no shame in whatever that threshold is for you on any given day... it doesn't make you a "good" or "bad" human).

The cool thing is that when you move your body, not only are you relieving stress, but you're also increasing your body and brain's threshold to stress (as I mentioned above). Sounds like magic, right?!

I won't even get into how improved executive functions like cognitive flexibility, attention, concentration, mood regulation, and building complex brain circuits ties into stress relief... but just know that they do.

And, as you notice that you have the ability to manage your stress with movement, you also develop the trust that you can handle hard things. It's a positive feedback loop!

Now, if we think about grief, we know that the grieving process (and associated life events) are very stressful. And, Dr. John J. Ratey says in his book 'Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,'

"The more stress you have, the more your body needs to move to keep your brain running smoothly."

In order to relieve stress, you don't have to do any particular kind of movement. You might try progressive muscle relaxation, sitting on an exercise ball and gently bouncing, gently shaking your limbs, or dancing to a song or two.

Ideally, including something like this into your daily routine will support you in managing stress ( which is different than taking an external stressor away). Pairing that awareness with loads of self-compassion for days where it's just not possible, or for phases where there are more important things for you to be tackling, is really important too.

So, no, movement won't make grief hurt less, it won't mean you don't have a bunch of frustrating paperwork to deal with, and it won't help you decide what to do with your loved one's belongings (unless that boost to your cognitive flexibility helps with coming up with creative solutions)... what it will do is support your brain health and allow your body to complete the stress cycle so that you can face life's ups and downs with a little bit of extra support.

Sometimes movement is hard though... for lots of different reasons.

What else can you do to support yourself when you're in the grief-brain phase?

  1. Know that it's not a choice that you're making. It's not something that you can control.

  2. Be gentle with yourself. Shaming and blaming won't make your grief brain go away.

  3. Set limits. Say no if you need/want to. Let others know what you're experiencing when appropriate. Ask for support.

  4. Take notes. Carry a little notebook with you to jot important things down.

  5. Set reminders in your phone. Set alarms on your phone or google/alexa devices.

  6. Leave notes to yourself in obvious places with reminders and encouragement.

  7. Bring a support person with you to important appointments.

  8. Allow yourself to rest.

Did you learn something from this blog post? If you did, I'd be so thankful if you shared it.

You can find me on instagram @movethroughgrief for more specific movement & grief-related content.

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