General Question

rebbel's avatar

What happens in a human body/brain when someone close dies? [Details inside].

Asked by rebbel (31549points) December 19th, 2011

Probably all of us have the unfortunate experience of losing a family member/friend/pet.
In the hours and days after the death we (can) feel dazed or numb.
As if we are not part of this world/life.
Is there a certain stuff that the body or brain produces to make us feel this way?
Is this state happening for a reason; to protect us from something?

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10 Answers

marinelife's avatar

“Although your emotions may be very intense at some times, at other times they may be so much the opposite that you may feel dull, empty, numb or completely shut down. You may feel emotionally dead or like a robot without feelings. You may feel remarkably detached and estranged from others. You may feel that you can’t even generate feelings of love in your most treasured relationships. You may lose interest or feelings of enjoyment for your favorite pastimes, eating or sex. Even though others may think you are doing better at these times compared to periods when you are intensely reliving the trauma, it may alarm you to feel so benumbed and lacking in feeling. Again, this is a part of the normal response to trauma. Just as the iris controls the amount of light entering your eye in order to protect the retina, or, just as the body secretes natural anesthetic after a physical injury, so, too, does your system mobilize to protect you from being overwhelmed after trauma by numbing your feelings.”

“Researchers have demonstrated that exposure to severe trauma often results in persistent alterations in bodily functions. For example, levels of several neurotransmitters in your brain may be affected by trauma, which can contribute to your symptoms. Trauma can render parts of the brain overactive or underactive, also contributing to your symptoms. Disruption of your sleep cycle after trauma may also contribute to your symptoms. Your baseline level of arousal, as measured by resting heart rate and blood pressure, may be persistently elevated after trauma.”

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Coloma's avatar

For most the grieving process unfolds in stages. Yes, the first stage is shock, which would account for feelings of surrealism, disbelief, numbness.
Then denial, anger, bargaining and finally, acceptance.

Every loss is different and for some these cycles are repeated several times or more, cycling around.

“They” the infamous “they say we experience the grieving process in little micro-episodes many times for even non-death losses, the ” Oh shit where’s my wallet?”...Shock, denial, anger, bargaining..” maybe it’s in my car, please oh please oh please”..LOL Then…acceptance, ” It’s gone, better start calling the credit cards”. haha

I think most of us get better with accepting death as we get older and have more experiences with loss. It is still sad, you still miss the person, pet, the stages of grieving are there, but you get to acceptance more quickly, maybe in a matter of days rather than weeks, months or years.

PhiNotPi's avatar

I think that the reason for this is similar to reason people have withdrawal from drugs (pardon the analogy, I’ll explain why it is relevent):

In your brain, there are certain chemicals that alter how your brain works and contribute to emotions. These chemicals are produced in set quantities. After an intense stimulation, your brain releases most of its store of the chemical. When you take illegal drugs or smoke, your brain releases all of its “happy chemical,” dopamine. I can imagine something similar happening when a person experiences intense feelings of sadness.

After an intense feeling of happiness or any emotion, that person’s brain can run out of / become less sensitive to that chemical for a while. This leads to a drug’s addictiveness. A person becomes incapable of feeling happiness without the drug, since their brain is not able to release any dopamine (since it doesn’t have any).

Since those who just lost loved ones aren’t exactly on any sort of drug (and sadness isn’t exactly addictive), they just run out of the ability to have the same intense feelings of sadness. Of course they still are consciously aware of the sadness of their loved one’s death, but they don’t feel sad. The don’t feel happy, either, so this just leads to a feeling of complete emptiness, not interested in anything.

john65pennington's avatar

I can only describe this feeling as a loss depression. I had a bad case of it when my dad died. I could be driving down the road and in the rearview mirror, I could see him sitting in the back seat of my car.

This did not last long and I am sure all of us go or will go through it at one time or another.

blueiiznh's avatar

Grieving is hard work and takes a huge toll on our bodies. When we are responding to a loss, the part of our brain where responses are integrated increases the production of CRH, a hormone that produces anxiety-like symptoms. Emergency-mobilizing chemicals are released. As our stress increases, the chemical levels increase; and our central nervous system becomes highly stimulated. Our breathing may become defective. Biological rhythms of sleeping and eating are disturbed. Our digestion, metabolism, circulation and respiration change. Our ability to concentrate and pay attention decreases.
Grieving can actually change the environment in the belly, intestines and bowels. “I feel as if I’ve been hit in the stomach,” we might say. “My stomach is in knots,” someone else may offer as a description of the physical stress triggered by a loss. These reactions can actually rearrange the muscles and sometimes even our body’s skeleton, in particular patterns for particular lengths of time. We may make sounds, like a moan or a growl. Our brain produces pictures that upset us even more.
Often the physical stress of grieving will cause us to lose coordination. We fall more easily. We don’t run our daily lives as smoothly as we did. Even simple things seem hard to do. Our brain and our eyes don’t coordinate the way they did before the loss. We are prone to have more accidents. We get more colds. Our immune system is compromised. We tire easily.
When we experience a loss, a very ancient reaction is triggered in our brain: the fight-or-flight response. More than one researcher has remarked on the deep evolutionary roots of this response to loss. The reason we have such terrible pain, they say, is that far back in the timeless past we learned, as a species, that we had to bond with others in order to find food and to protect ourselves from enemies. To break those bonds was to die ourselves. Even now, when the bonds we have with others are disturbed, at some deep level we fear for our very survival.
Because we sense that we are in danger, the body mobilizes to protect itself from the intruder or, if that’s not possible, to escape to safety. But loss is no hostile tribe that we can guard the camp against; nor is it an enemy that we can run from. Therefore we are caught in a state of tension. Our brain has stimulated us to take action; but, since we cannot undo the loss there is at this moment no action we can take. We are, therefore, held taut. This means that our bodies are under enormous stress…Dr. Beverley Raphael warns us that “bereavement may also be fatal.” (Excerpt from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)

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DaphneT's avatar

@blueiiznh what is CRH an acronym for?

rebbel's avatar

May I thank you for your answers; they were insightfull and interesting!

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