“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid but the sensation is like being afraid.”
These are the first words of C.S. Lewis’ renowned book A Grief Observed. In this honest and thoughtful memoir, he recounts so much of the chaos that occurred within his mind and body after his beloved died. I’ve read it twice since Pete died and I’m still mostly stuck on that first thought.
Grief feels like fear.
For example, when I get in my car alone, a funny things happens at about mile 3. Without prompting, remember the moment Pete stopped breathing or I remember I have to pack up my house in the next six weeks or I remember that I don't really know how to do life without him. My breathing changes. And I feel unrest. This is the same feeling as fear. It’s fight or flight time.
You see fear comes to us from our amygdala. The amygdala is part of our animal brain. It’s lodged deep in the cerebral cortex and it is part of our limbic system. It controls memory, our decision making, our emotional reactions. It gives us fear… and I’m going to say grief too.
Grief comes from memory. Grief is a much deeper seated emotion. It’s not cognitive.
Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk is the Medical Director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. He’s also a professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School and in an interview with Krista Tippet, he said, “We have these two different parts of our brain. Our animal brain makes us go to sleep, and makes us hungry, and makes us turned on to other human beings in a sexual way, stuff like that. Then we have our rational brain, the Broca’s center, which is sort of the part of your brain that helps you to reason, understand and articulate things. It also allows us to get along with other people in a civilized way.”
These two parts of our brain are not connected.
That’s why when we become upset, our ability to articulate disappears. (And this also is why our political discourse has become uncivilized, irrational and nonproductive.)
So what is a girl to do when she’s at mile three and her amygdala hijacks her brain?
For that I turned to yet another interview with Krista Tippett. In February of 2016, she interviewed, Dr. James Doty, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and founding director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Dr. Doty is at the forefront of how our mind communicates with our bodies. Dr. Doty talks about how we all have to deal with the “The baggage of evolution: the fight or flight response that is linked to violence and tribal conflict.”
“When we are fearful, we have a tendency to shut down. We don’t want to have new experiences. We want to have familiarity, which is typically with people who look like us, act like us, think like us. When we shut everything down, it gives us a sense of being safe but it also keeps you on pins and needles waiting to be attacked.”
Do me a favor and read that last paragraph again… because I feel like that several times a day. I live with an overwhelming feeling of being unsafe. My shoulders are constantly riding up my neck and my arms, my biceps in particular are always flexed.
How do we deal with this baggage from evolution? How do we bypass the amygdala? There has got to be a way to get my animal brain to communicate with my cognitive brain so that I can grief in a productive, soothing way.
Well… listen to this. Dr. Doty has been studying the effects of meditation and mindfulness on our brain. With a meditation practice for as little as two weeks, we see lower blood pressure, a change in the release of stress hormones and a strengthening of the immune system.”
Basically, practices like meditation or mindful breathing connects our parasympathetic nervous system with our with our vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the communication method between the heart and brain.
So a funny thing happened yesterday around mile three when I was alone in my car. My breathing changed. I felt unrest and I my brain started toward the direction of running in circles of things I could do or should do. And instead, I took a deep breath. And I felt my body present in my car. I breathed again. I looked out the window and noticed a specific tree, a specific house, something that was present, here and now.
Then I breathed again, and again, slowly, intentionally until the unrest passed. Take that amygdala.