Emotional trauma has a devastating effect on the mind and the brain. In fact, scientists are increasingly viewing the experience of traumatic loss as a type of brain injury. Grief is a complex process, with no “right” way to proceed and no estimated timeline for recovery.

I was five years old when I first heard the national anthem sung in school assembly. Too young to read, I hummed along until key phrases like “God save our gracious queen” stuck in my head. Fifty years later, I’m still wondering how the words suddenly changed? Growing up in the UK, the queen was part of the fabric of my life. Her face featured on coins (facing right) and stamps (facing left), while the Queen’s Head was a popular name for British pubs.

It's the layers of attachment and emotional connection you form throughout your life which guide your behaviour and determine how you perceive the world. The depth and complexity of your internal associations may mean you (like me) resonate more strongly than expected with the loss of Queen Elizabeth II. Consider which affinities click with you:

  • Concept….monarchy, succession, economic stability
  • Culture (ie. system of attitudes, behaviours and customs delineating belonging)….British subject, Commonwealth citizen, Sovereign state member
  • Commonality….life of service, family matriarch, dog lover
  • Contact / concrete bond….personal memory (meeting, telegram, award, honour)

Helen Marlo, professor of clinical psychology at Notre Dame de Namur University in California, further explains the struggle: “With grief, the mediator between the right and left hemispheres of the brain (the thinking and feeling parts) is impaired. The task is to integrate both, so you’re not drowning in feelings without thought as a mediator – or silencing feelings in favour of rational thinking.”

Immediately after loss, the body switches to fight or flight (stress) mode, releasing hormones and chemicals. Sharp, repetitive reminders about what’s missing trigger further chemical releases, which eventually remodel the brain’s circuitry in a process named neuroplasticity. Why does this happen? Because certain regions of the brain are wiring differently in times of grief. Three brain areas are primarily affected – the prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala.

Does this sound familiar? The prefrontal cortex is known as the thinking centre of the brain. When it cranks down, you find it hard to think straight, remember clearly or make decisions. The anterior cingulate cortex is responsible for emotional regulation. Once it becomes underactive, you end up repeatedly swamped by overwhelming and contradictory feelings. At the same time, the amygdala (which controls your fear response) goes into overdrive, heightening anxiety and playing havoc with your rational perception of reality. In short, for you to continue functioning, your limbic system (aka. survival instincts) must take over while your brain struggles to filter out difficult memories and block painful feelings.

Maybe you’ve heard someone say grief feels like losing your mind…and wondered what they were talking about? While brain function is similar for everyone, rarely do two minds continually think alike! Studies have shown that your experience of loss depends on the relational patterns and associations of your mind. Your mental processes and the intensity of your emotional reactions (ie. the “feeling” of grief) are totally unique – or personal to you.

Memorial services across New Zealand will honour the queen on Monday 26thSeptember, however her loss may impact kiwi mourners for much longer. Unfortunately, the passing of a public figure can also trigger traumatic memories in people who have previously lost a loved one and are still struggling to recover.

Such unchecked emotion has the power to negatively impact your entire organisation, affecting performance and disrupting communication. Get in touch now for measures to help your whole team more effectively manage their emotional culture.