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In Dr. Daniel Amen and Tana Amen’s new PBS special ‘Overcoming Anxiety, Depression, Trauma & Grief’ they discuss the dragons from the past that breathe fire on the emotional centers of the brain. Perhaps one of the most prevalent of these dragons during the pandemic is the Grief and Loss Dragon. In this episode of The Brain Warrior’s Way Podcast, Dr. Amen describes the three major types, what triggers them, how they manifest, and what you can do to ease the resulting negative feelings.
Watch the brand new TV special from Dr. Daniel and Tana Amen “Overcoming Anxiety, Depression, Trauma & Grief” on PBS now! Check you local listings for showtimes.
Daniel Amen, MD:
Welcome to The Brain Warrior’s Way podcast. I’m Dr. Daniel Amen.
Tana Amen, BSN RN:
And I’m Tana Amen. In our podcast, we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.
The Brain Warrior’s Way podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we have been transforming lives for 30 years using tools like brain SPECT imaging to personalize treatment to your brain. For more information, visit amenclinics.com.
The Brain Warrior’s Way podcast is also brought to you by BrainMD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceuticals to support the health of your brain and body. To learn more, go to brainmd.com.
Many of you know I did the big NFL study when the NFL was struggling with traumatic brain injury in football. But I just saw so much pain in retired players’ families, that I knew I had to do something. But we’re not talking football tonight. It’s not a big topic for us. We’re going to talk about grief and loss. I know they’re feeling it in Kansas City, but quite frankly, people are feeling it all around the world. And our older population, some of you think I’m in that group, no, no, no. Our older population is suffering more than I can remember them ever suffering because of the isolation and the loneliness. And the younger population is suffering more than ever. In my house I have an 11 year old, almost 16 year old and a 17 year old. Last year, this year they’ve lost a lot and it’s critical to know how to deal with it.
I was on Headline News today, CNN Headline News. That was really fun, with my friend Lynn Smith. We were talking about my new book, Your Brain is Always Listening. It is coming out March 2nd. In the book, I talk about what your brain is always listening to. I use the metaphor of dragons. The first section is dragons from the past that still breathe fire on your emotional brain. We’ve talked about or heard of dragons so far, but tonight we’re going to talk about the one that just bites people so often, and that is the grief and loss dragon. All the dragons, I had an artist render them for me.
It’s more complicated than most people think. I mean, yes, when I lost my dad last May, partly because of COVID, I mean, there was just such sadness associated with that. That’s what people often think when they think of grief, that it was a spouse, or a parent, a child, or a loved one. But there are three big categories to grief. You lose someone important by death, or a separation, or a divorce, or a breakup or a friend, or a peer group, a partner that has dementia and they don’t recognize you anymore.
You lose children. Now, the worst thing is losing a child to death, but when you have an empty nest, that’s a loss. So many patients that I’ve treated over the years, I mean, they actually can get depressed when they experience that loss. Tana, my wife who’s just a great mother. She has been a great mother. One of the reasons I think she’s great, is she caused Chloe to be very independent and she doesn’t need her as much at 17. That’s the point. I mean, that’s what you want to do, but I could just see the sadness and the grief.
You might lose something important. The first category is someone important. The second one is something important, such as your health. Women with breast cancer, who’ve had a mastectomy. I was an army psychiatrist for a long time and someone lost a limb, a job, finances, even a beloved pet. I have seen severe grief reactions. It’s like, “Well, why?” My dog, [inaudible [00:06:15], loves me virtually no matter what. I can’t say that about anybody else in my life. Having that kind of love and attachment is so important. Someone important, something important, or you lose the attachment to an idea, to what could have been, to your identity such as with retirement. Or you lose a loved one to an addiction. Or if you have a handicapped child that you had this hope for your relationship with this child, and it just takes a complete right turn. I also see this a lot with the athletes and musicians and actors and actresses that I’ve seen. That they lose the trajectory of going toward a goal. If they don’t make new goals, they often get lost in themselves.
What can trigger grief and loss? Any reminder of the loss; a sight, a song, a routine, making coffee in the morning, an anniversary, anything. Today’s Sunday. Sundays often trigger loss for me because for the last five years, virtually every Sunday, I went over to my dad’s house and he and I worked out together. We lift weights and he was almost 91 when he died. He could do a plank longer than I could. It was irritating, I mean, seriously irritating. I’d go, “Let’s do a minute,” and he’d go, “Let’s do two.” I’m like, “Okay.” He goes, “Let’s do four,” and I’m like, “Oh, no.” He could do a six minute plank at 90. Pretty weird actually. But every Sunday or every time I do a plank, I think of him. And early on, it was a lot of pain for me.
How do we react when we experience grief and loss or when the grief and loss dragon breathes fire on our emotional brain? Well, it can be shock, anger, sadness, guilt, numbness, anxiety, insomnia. I remember when I lost someone, it was about 16 years ago. I mean, someone I really cared about and she went away for six months. I was completely not normal. Probably most people know me go, “Well, he’s never normal.” But I wasn’t myself. I couldn’t sleep, I had chest pain and diarrhea. It was just like my whole nervous system was out of whack. That’s how people react. It’s like your brain is still looking for something that’s not there.
Loneliness, physical stress symptoms. Chest pain’s very important to get assessed. I had chest pain when I went through that period of grief and I went to the cardiologist and my heart was just fine. What happens with grief, it’s a different kind of stress that causes your ventricles, two of the chambers of your heart, to beat erratically and that’s what causes the chest pain. But my heart was fine. My assistant, who I adore, Kim, while she was working with me, her fiance died of a heart attack in her arms and she had crushing chest pain. My first thought was it’s grief, but the first thing I said is, “It’s probably grief. You need to go to the cardiologist.” Well, we actually found out she had 95% blockages in her coronary arteries. His death likely saved her life. So if you get chest pain, it’s really important to get it assessed.
The chronic exposure to cortisol stress hormones actually shrinks the cells in your hippocampus, one of the major memory structures of the brain. So having memory problems during periods of grief and loss are very common. What to do? How to tame the grief and loss dragon? Let’s talk about seven things.
One: you want to start healing as soon as possible. I knew when my dad died, I wasn just going to feel bad for a long time. I was going to feel bad. In fact, I sat in my office in the chair I write in and I just played his voicemails. I played them over and over again. I wanted to feel how much I loved him, how much he loved me, the sadness. For his funeral, I wrote a poem. That’s actually, I put it in the book. I won’t go over it with you, but it’s beautiful. Get the book. Start as soon as possible, number one.
Number two: brain health, right? I’m already talking to you about how stress chemicals can damage your brain. You need to get on a brain healthy program. Too often people are feeling bad, they’re smoking pot, they’re drinking alcohol. They’re eating a lot of sugar, they’re doing things to medicate themselves that actually make them worse and perpetuate the problem.
I sent a note to my team today about Tom Brady. Tom Brady, greatest of all time quarterback, 10 Super Bowls, just won his seventh Super Bowl or something crazy. I’m not a fan of football, but I’m a huge fan of Tom Brady. Because if you actually look at his routine, the New York Post had a headline story of his insane routine. He’s basically a brain warrior. He does everything right, except football. That’s why despite being 43, he is still the best quarterback in football. I mean, it’s crazy, right? If you’re going, be in a stressful environment, step number two is get your brain right. Do the things. Focus on exercising, eating right, taking your supplements, new learning, do not give yourself permission to get off track.
I have a great story that I put in one of my books, Use Your Brain to Change Your Age, about Chris who lost her 12 year old daughter, Sammy, to bone cancer, and then just felt terrible and got depressed. Started drinking too much, ate the wrong food, went from 130 pounds to 200 pounds. On the two year anniversary of Sammy’s death, she was going to kill herself. Then she saw me on TV and I was talking about brain health. She said, “Well, I’ll get his book and if it’s a bad book, I’ll kill myself tomorrow.” She actually told me that. Just horrified me. But she realized she was doing all the wrong things. So she stopped drinking, she stopped eating bad food. She got on her tennis shoes, she started walking, then she started running. And over the next year, got down to her normal weight, felt better. Of course, she’s always going to miss Sammy. Of course, I’m always going to miss my dad, but hurting myself isn’t helping anybody.
Step three: Fix sleep first. So important. If you don’t sleep right, you won’t grieve right. If you don’t sleep right, you won’t think right. If you don’t sleep right, you won’t make the right decisions. Really take some time and focus on getting the sleep you need. That does not mean Ambien. That is not a good strategy. Hypnosis, meditation, BrainMD makes something called, Put Me to Sleep. We also have Restful Sleep. There are supplements that can help; magnesium, thiamine, GABA, a little bit of melatonin, not a lot, a little bit of melatonin.
Number four is journal. What happened if you’re having trouble getting beyond grief, there’s research that says just writing about it 15 minutes a day, after a couple of weeks significant improvement. The idea is do something.
Number five: be on an alert for an ant infestation. Those of you who follow my work, you know I talk about automatic negative thoughts. The thoughts that come into your mind automatically and ruin your day. In Your Brain is Always Listening, there’s a big chapter on how to kill the ants that are feeding the dragons. Here’s the exercise. Whenever you feel sad, or mad, or nervous, or out of control, write down what you’re thinking. Then ask yourself, is it true? Can I absolutely know it’s true? So helpful.
Six is deal with the triggers, be on guard for them. When they come, let the feeling wash over you and then change it. You don’t have to stay in sadness. I have a new course coming out called Overcoming Anxiety, Depression, Trauma, and Grief. I talk about my friend, Joseph McLendon, who has a four step process to break bad feelings quickly. Practice feeling bad, go to the darkness. I feel the sadness over my dad and then say, “Stop.” I mean, once you’ve dealt with it. I call it interrupting unnecessary, unhappy moments. Say, “Stop,” stand up, take a breath, gives you some space and then replace it with a happy moment. After I did one of my shows, my dad called me and said he was proud of me and that was not a common thing. As accomplished as I am, expressing love was sort of rare. But I cherish that, I hold on to that. Then celebrate. It’s like, “Yes, I don’t have to feel that. I can interrupt unnecessary, unhappy moments.”
Keep your memory balanced. Too often when we lose someone or something, we over idealize them. I saw my grandmother do this to my grandfather. I loved my grandfather, was named after him. He was my best friend when I was growing up, he was a candy maker. I mean, I was attached. But my grandmother was mean to him. I wasn’t a fan of her. And when my grandfather died, she just went on and on about how wonderful he was, how much she missed him. You want to keep it balanced.
And the bonus strategy, if you’re still struggling, get help. Sometimes grief and loss can get stuck in your brain. I’ve actually published scientific studies on how trauma gets stuck in the brain. And grief often becomes traumatic and there are treatments that can help. Now for me, I don’t just reach for oh, take this or that medicine. But supplements like Happy Saffron or Serotonin Mood Support can often be very helpful too.
I hope you’re finding this helpful. You can also order my new book, Your Brain is Always Listening, if you go to yourbrainisalwayslistening.com. If you pre-order it, I’m actually giving away a free bottle of Happy Saffron, along with some other wonderful gifts.
I hope you have a great night. If you’re struggling with grief and loss, use some of these tips. I know they can be helpful to you. Take care.
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