There are some common themes throughout life that we all share. Research has shown one of these shared experiences is what has been commonly referred to as “widow’s brain”. After the trauma of losing a spouse, the majority of women experience a type of “fog” that can feel like an overwhelming sense of being disconnected, unorganized, and scatterbrained. In this state of mind, the ability to perform simple tasks, recall memories, and think through problems seems impossible.
When the brain is dealing with trauma, it will react to it by relying on the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) almost exclusively. The PFC is the area of the brain that is responsible for rational thinking and making sense of emotions. It is like a command center that sends, receives, and processes information from all other areas of the brain. It is there to help you recall memories, memorize tasks and information, make decisions, and understand your surroundings.
With everything that the PFC is responsible for, it tires and becomes overloaded if it is used too often. Typically, to keep the PFC from becoming overworked, the human brain will defer back to habits and routines to help eliminate constant decisions that need to be made throughout the day. That is the reason why you sometimes cannot specifically remember your drive to work. The routine allows your brain to think about other things while you are driving your typical route rather than consciously making those decisions day after day after day.
The death of a spouse can severely interrupt our lives and put us in a sense of shock that causes us to rely on the PFC instead of reverting back to habits and routines. The PFC can only process one thing at a time and its capacity to hold information is limited. Overworking the PFC will cause it to tire quickly which causes the symptoms associated with widow’s brain.
The flood of emotions and new experiences during the early stages of the grief process will torment your PFC to the point it becomes unusable. To deal with this, the PFC will behave as if it is in the REM sleep stage and cause a dreamlike experience while you are awake. Your ability to make decisions, understand, memorize, and recall is nearly impossible.
This state of mind will begin to change over time. The brain will begin to recover from the trauma and begin to use the other parts of the brain again. There is no universal timeline for when this happens. However, understanding what is causing these feelings and not suppressing your emotions will help the brain begin to recover. Using more effective emotion strategies will help you rebound from an overworked PFC and build the new pathways your brain needs to adequately deal with trauma.
Feeling lost, frustrated, and overwhelmed are universal truths after the loss of a spouse. Our brains are learning how to cope with emotional pain. You are not alone. The brain needs time to recover and find a new “normal”. It will improve over time, and so will you.
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