How Does Grief Affect Our Cognition?

Grief can be a life-changing experience, and it’s no wonder it can change our brains. We tend to think of grief as an emotion brought on by death, but it can also come from life changes such as separations, injury, or illness. No matter the cause, grief affects cognition in similar ways.

grief affects cognition

How grief affects cognition

When we experience grief, our brain can perceive it as a threat to our survival. We go into fight or flight mode. This can affect cognition in many ways. Experiencing brain fog is common, which can include temporary effects on cognitive skills such as attention and memory. Loss and major life changes can also cause trauma and PTSD, which can affect memory further.

Executive function skills can be impaired as well. These include planning, problem-solving, and decision making. Language skills may be affected too. It may be hard to find words while speaking, because our minds are so preoccupied with other things. Perhaps the least expected cognitive effect is on our visual-spatial skills, but even depth perception can be affected by grief overwhelming the brain.

It’s important to remember that these cognitive effects are normal responses to grief. The emotional rollercoaster of grief is so difficult already – don’t be hard on yourself if you’re experiencing cognitive effects such as struggling to pay attention, plan, or remember little things. Be kind to yourself and remember that over time, it will get better.

How it gets better

Our brains are amazing at adapting to life changes through the process of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to alter its neural connections, which helps us adapt to new situations and learn new skills. 

One of the factors that will encourage these positive changes in the brain is simply time. Over time, the trauma responses occurring in the brain will likely subside and the affected cognitive skills will stabilize, as will the mental health effects of grief. It takes time and the grieving process can look different for each individual. So again – be patient with yourself and with loved ones who are experiencing grief.

Healthy coping strategies can also be incredibly beneficial in encouraging healing through neuroplasticity. These can encourage the brain to create new thought processes, eventually helping us to feel better. Healthy coping strategies can include counseling, journaling, communication with loved ones, and mindfulness activities such as meditation. Over time, these can help us return to feelings of calmness and security. When we begin to overcome the effects of trauma and grief and get closer to emotional stability, our cognitive skills like attention and memory will likely stabilize as well.


Grief can be an overwhelming experience and affect our cognition and mental health. Over time, neuroplasticity can help the experience become more bearable. Being patient with yourself and trying healthy coping mechanisms can help to heal the cognitive and mental health effects of grief.

Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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