Image: Milada Vigerova via Unsplash

Five Ways to Train Your Brain to Cope with Grief and Loss

We interview leading neuroscientist and best-selling author Dr. Caroline Leaf.

Why can the holidays be particularly triggering? What are some methods we can use to cope with seasonal depression? Spending time with family and friends can sometimes have a paradoxical effect on our mental health. For many people, our loved ones are the people we can be most ourselves with — we can choose our clothes with a little less effort, and we don’t have to be as socially reserved. However, our loved ones are also the people that often know us on a deeper level, including our best and worst qualities. They have probably been with us during our darkest moments, and seen us when our walls have broken down and our vulnerabilities are exposed.

This sense of emotional nakedness is one big reason why many people find being around loved ones during the holiday season triggering. They may feel like they are under pressure to act and perform in a certain way, or they may feel on the defensive because of what happened in the past—their mind and body is trying to protect them from getting hurt by opening old or exposed wounds, which can cause a significant amount of holiday grief. These feelings can be exacerbated by the unique nature of the holiday season. As the seasons change and our regular routines go on hold for a time, and as we start to surround ourselves with family or friends, many people feel overwhelmed and triggered, like they cannot escape.

Image: Anh Nguyen via Unsplash

Five Ways to Train Your Brain to Cope with Grief and Loss

The key here is to listen to what our feelings are trying to tell us. If we are experiencing holiday grief, we need to see these emotions as warning signals that prompt us to check in with our mental health. Some ways to do this are to schedule in regular mental health check-ins. Try document how you are feeling by visualizing, journaling, creating and so on—whatever method you find easiest to express your emotions and find an outlet for how you are feeling. Do this regularly over the holiday season; make it a daily habit! Set boundaries with yourself and your family and friends.

When you create a healthy boundary, the issue stays the same, but a boundary creates the space you need to look at the issue differently, work on it and re-conceptualize it over time, thereby finding a way forward. This is key! Even if the person who triggered you remains toxic, you can still control how they affect you, which is incredibly empowering. One great way to set boundaries with others is to create space/distance between you and that person, which will allow you to process and learn how to manage your feelings. But be specific! How will you create this space? For how long? Why? What will it look like if you eventually choose to interact with that person in the future? Or if you choose to no longer have a relationship with them?

Setting self-boundaries are very like setting boundaries with others. For example, think about what you may say to a person to who is very aggressive, such as “I can’t engage in a conversation with you if you are going to yell at me or say nasty things”. Now, do the exact same thing with your negative thoughts — say something like “I can’t accept what you are saying till my brain calms down and stops being so nasty”. Hopefully, the way you are managing yourself and becoming less reactive will impact your loved ones, and they too will recognize that they need to create space to work on themselves!

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