Thinking About Thinking (and grief): Volume II

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Litsa Williams

For further articles on these topics:

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.

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4 Comments on "Thinking About Thinking (and grief): Volume II"

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  1. Kelly  December 7, 2016 at 12:56 pm Reply

    Something that surprised me a lot is how little I trust my memories in the midst of loss. I will have a trigger, something that will bring up a memory, but I have so little confidence in the archives that exist in my head. I find myself wondering if daddy really sang that song or picked my mother up in a lime green hertz on their first date. Was grandma a switchboard operator? I remember something about this, about that, and that is where the “I wish there was someone who I could ask” comes up. I wish I could ask my mom, my dad, my husband, grandma, anyone…What comes up a lot is how people have completely different memories of a person or a specific event; the things that stick and their perceptions can be so different. I remember things my brother doesn’t remember; he remembers things that I don’t remember. For him, my father got a cancer diagnosis and he died in six months. For me, my father died a year after his diagnosis. I remember that my husband loved baths and pears were his favorite fruit. My son remembers daddy always taking showers and my daughter remembers him eating cantaloupes. So many times, I find myself trying to check in with others, “Did this really happen?” “Do you remember?…” “Am I making this up?” It’s a little maddening. And then it is ever so sad because the people who have the answers are no longer here. What I do is keep a journal of memories as I’m reminded of them. Mommy hated scarves and turtle necks too tight on her neck. My father knew the names of every tree. Steve wouldn’t say that it was raining. He would say, “We are expecting precipitation.” I collect memories so that I will remember as best I can what I do remember and have a record that won’t be erased so easily. I also consult my journals of the last 20 years. I call them the transcripts. They help me keep things straight and in order. They may not reveal the entire truth, but they reflect my perceptions, what was true for me in real time, so that I can look back with some accuracy to what was going on rather than my recollection from a time in the future where there are so many things that have come between the memory and present to reshape what is remembered maybe better or worse, bigger or smaller, “righter” or “wronger” than the reality of it. In the end our memory is something of our creation because the process happens through our perceptions and unique lens based on our own experiences and biases and interpretations given our understanding of the world. Who knows what the truth is because maybe it is different for everyone and maybe sometimes the twists we take liberty with, the narratives, are essential to our peace of mind and even sanity. Nevertheless, I anticipate that my calls to my brother, to my cousins, sister-in-law will continue…Do you remember if Steve ever caught fireflies in a jar when he was 3 years old?

    • Litsa  December 9, 2016 at 9:05 am Reply

      I think it is great you are keeping a memory journal! Before I got to that point in your comment I was going to suggest it 🙂 I am not sure if you read the Scientific American post in the article, but I think you might appreciate it. The author grapples with the same thing (as I think many of us do!) and as a memory researcher she has a unique perspective. Her perspective and means of coping I thought were interesting. Here is the link:

  2. Kathleen  December 7, 2016 at 9:53 am Reply

    I have recently had a bit of a breakdown – grieving my Mom, a troubling financial situation due to decisions made this summer after Moms death, dreading the holidays without her, and the election pushing me over the edge. I have a wonderful doctor that is understanding and I am now on medication for anxiety. It has not completely alleviated the anxiety but has made life more manageable. My husband and I have decided to keep the Christmas season at a minimum this year with different activities rather than old traditions. We can always choose to go back. Its important to get help – it doesn’t mean you are weak or that you will be on meds the rest of your life – but therapy and medication may help get a balance and your footing back.

    • Litsa  December 9, 2016 at 9:08 am Reply

      Thanks for sharing your experience Kathleen. I absolutely agree that being open to professional help and medication when necessary is so important. You make the important point that committing to either of those things doesn’t meet forever, it often just means seeking that support until things start to feel a bit more stable.

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