A while back I wrote a post about how your brain can’t always be trusted. Sadly your brain can process information in ways that aren’t always helpful or accurate. It can distort reality in ways that ultimately impact grief. I know, its a bummer. We like believing our brains are reliable. But sadly there is just too much evidence showing that just isn’t the case. If you missed that original post, you can check it out here. And, as promised, that was not the end of the ‘thinking about thinking’ conversation.
Today we want to continue the conversation with one of the common thought-traps grievers fall into: anxiety-thinking. Even those who fancy themselves the most rational, analytical, and level-headed of people can easily fall into this because it is just something the brain tends to do. It looks a little something like this:
I am hiking in the woods alone and I see rustling and hear noises in some nearby bushes. My natural anxiety kicks in and says “that could be a bear, run!”. Now, it could also be a bird or a deer or a squirrel or a hundred other animals that are not a threat. In fact, chances are probably far greater it is something that can’t hurt me, rather than something that can. But my survival instinct overrides that probability equation in my brain. Rather than rationally saying, ah its probably nothing, don’t be scared, my brain takes the “better safe than sorry approach”. My brain would rather me panic that it is a bear and have it be a bird than think it is a bird and have it be a bear, so suddenly my heart is pounding and I am making plans to flea.
We have a whole post on anxiety in grief here, so I am going to keep it simple when it comes to grief. Imagine someone has lost a sibling to cancer. Now that person notices every symptom in themselves and every other family member and assumes the worst. The inside of their brain feels something like this:
Before that death or cancer diagnosis, a headache or stomach pain or muscle aches might have been a sign of stress or the flu, but the anxiety-thinking in the brain now is in overdrive trying to anticipate the potential threat of cancer, however unlikely. This is known as probability overestimation. The brain overestimates the likelihood of bad things happening, in an effort to protect you from those bad things. Perhaps you overestimate the likelihood of the event that led to your loved one’s death occurring, like cancer, accidents, or violence. Or perhaps your loved one’s death led to the belief that bad things can happen to anyone at any time and now you feel that disaster is likely to strike at any moment. This constant anxiety can become exhausting and take a toll on everyday functioning. Read more in our post on anxiety here.
When it comes to fear and anxiety, memories can play a role in easing or exacerbating things. This brings us to another area where our brains are less reliable and accurate than we would like to believe. Though we are often very confident about the accuracy of specific memories, like it or not false memories are a thing. Our memories are very suggestible and malleable. As a result, people ‘remember’ things that didn’t happen, or remember them differently than they happened. Research done in 2010 found that watching video of someone else doing something caused some people to ‘remember’ themselves doing the activity. What is even more interesting, this happened even when participants had been told about the phenomenon of false memories and warned in advance it might happen. Small changes in memory can also happen when another person talks about a memory you both share, but adds extra details that didn’t actually occur. In the future you confidently ‘remember’ those details as part of the memory.
False memories are one of my least favorite tricks of the brain. It is distressing to know when I remember something that the memory might not be accurate. I like to believe in my memories! But the reality is, not only do our memories sometimes deceive us, there is some research showing that stress can increase the likelihood of misremembering things or having a ‘false memory’. Other research found individuals with PTSD were more likely to create false memories about war-related events than those who did not have PTSD, which reinforced earlier research and beliefs that individuals with PTSD significantly impacts thoughts and memories that are “thematically related” to the traumatising event.
Memory research has also looked at “biased guesses” which occur when we don’t have a clear memory of the actual event (this could be because it happened a long time ago, or simply because we didn’t form a strong long term memory of it. When grieving, many experience the “blur” of certain times during an illness, hospitalization, death, and months to follow, so there are many memories that may not be clear). Our brains will sometimes fill in the blanks when there is no memory by making guesses based on things we have seen, learned, experienced, or assumed in the past. Even in cases where we don’t create a true false memory, our brains can create biased guesses as well as false beliefs about things that happened. In these cases we very believe an event took place, even if we don’t have a strong or specific memory of that event. We still can have emotions based on that belief, make decisions based on that belief, etc.
If you are feeling unclear on what the heck false memories or beliefs possibly have to do with grief, let me give you a quick example. Recently I was talking with a woman who had a lot of anxiety about events related to her mom’s death. She had a very specific memory of receiving her mom’s autopsy report and reading something in it that reinforced her guilt and anxiety. More than a year later, when pressed on it by other people, she pulled the autopsy report out and found that she had misremembered the content of the report. She identified both having clearly ‘remembered’ reading information that was not in the report and she also had not remembered information that was in the report. Though others had encouraged her to look over the report again, her confidence in her initial memory of the event was so strong that she had felt no reason to revisit.
Why are we thinking about thinking? What do you do with all this info making you doubt your own brain? Mostly, become aware of it. If you are experiencing anxiety-thinking and it is negatively impacting your day-to-day life, you may want to talk to a therapist. Take comfort in all your wonderful memories and don’t panic that your memory isn’t always reliable, but be aware of it. If you have PTSD, talk to a professional and be aware of the impact that trauma can have on your memories and cognitions. If you are interested in reading how a memory researcher copes with the probability of false memories in her grief, check out Julie Shaw’s piece in Scientific American.
As always, subscribe to get our newest grief posts straight to your inbox! We will have some posts on coping with the holidays in the coming weeks, but in the mean time if you are looking for some support to get through the holiday season this is a good place to start: Everything You Wish You Didn’t Need To Know About Holiday Grief or you can take our free holiday grief e-course here. Last but not least, if you are still in the market for holiday cards you can support WYG by purchasing a pack here.