Grieving the loss of a loved one can be one of the most difficult experiences of our lives. We may struggle with intrusive memories, difficulty concentrating, and prolonged feelings of emptiness. We may also desperately try to block out any memories of our loved one to spare ourselves the painful feelings, also known as avoidant grief.
However, blocking out feelings, according to a new collaborative study between Columbia Engineering and Columbia University Irving Medical Center, may ultimately exhaust our ability to cope effectively.
Using a machine-learning approach to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) called “neural decoding,” which establishes a neural pattern or fingerprint that can be used to determine when a given mental process is happening, researchers tracked the ongoing processes of mental control as loss-related thoughts came in and out of conscious awareness during a 10-minute period of mind-wandering in 29 subjects.
“The major challenge of our study was to be able ‘look under the hood’ of a person’s natural mind-wandering state to see what underlying processes were actually controlling their experience,” explains Noam Schneck, lead author of the study (Schneck, 2018).
All of the subjects in the study had lost a first-degree relative (a spouse or partner) within the last 14 months. While spontaneous fluctuations in their mental processes were monitored using fMRI, subjects performed a modified Stroop task, a test widely used in psychology to measure a person’s ability to control the contents of attention, and a separate task presenting pictures and stories of the deceased.
Schneck and his team discovered that those with more avoidant grief engaged their attentional control process to block representations of the deceased from conscious awareness (Schneck et al., 2018). Schneck explains, “Our findings show that avoidant grief involves attentional control to reduce the likelihood that deceased-related representations reach full conscious awareness. Even though they are not aware of it, avoidant grievers actively control their mental state so that spontaneous thoughts of loss do not enter their consciousness. This kind of tailoring of mind-wandering likely exhausts mental energy and leads to time periods when the thoughts actually do break through” (Schneck, 2018).
Schneck likens the process to an “ineffective pop-up blocker” that runs in the background of your computer. He says, “You might not be aware that it’s there but it slows down the overall operating speed and eventually breaks down and the pop ups get through” (Schneck, 2018).
“What we’ve shown is that outside of our conscious awareness, we are constantly editing our own mental experiences to control what does and does not get in. And this process of editing is not always helpful” (Schneck, 2018).
It is understandable that we may seek to avoid painful feelings, however, the point Schneck and his team make is that, ultimately, we cannot avoid painful feelings. As they say, “they do break through.” A better goal is perhaps to relax our conscious and unconscious mental controls of painful feelings and learn to accept them into our awareness.
Related Online Continuing Education (CE) Courses:
Caregiver Help: Depression and Grief is a 2-hour online video-based continuing education (CE/CEU) course that addresses caregiver depression and grief and provides strategies to help the caregiver cope. Click here to learn more.
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