Avoidant Grieving Makes People Avoid Life

December 19, 2018

A new study between published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience demonstrates that avoidant grievers unconsciously monitor and block the contents of their mind-wandering, constantly protecting themselves from thinking about their loss.

People who are grieving a major loss, such as the death of a spouse or a child, use different coping mechanisms to carry on with their lives. Psychologists have been able to track different approaches, which can reflect different clinical outcomes. One approach that is not usually successful is avoidant grief, a state in which people suffering from grief show marked, effortful, repeated, and often unsuccessful attempts to stop themselves from thinking about their loss. While researchers have shown that avoidant grievers consciously monitor their external environment in order to avoid reminders of their loss, no one has yet been able to show whether these grievers also monitor their mental state unconsciously, trying to block any thoughts of loss from rising to their conscious state.

A new collaborative study between Columbia Engineering and Columbia University Irving Medical Center published in SCAN: Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience demonstrates that avoidant grievers do unconsciously monitor and block the contents of their mind-wandering, a discovery that could lead to more effective psychiatric treatment for bereaved people suffering from impairing or pathological grief. The researchers, who studied 29 bereaved subjects, are the first to show how this unconscious thought suppression occurs. They tracked ongoing processes of mental control as loss-related thoughts came in and out of conscious awareness during a 10-minute period of mind-wandering.

A control process (i.e. selective attention) is used by avoidant grievers to block mental representations (i.e. thoughts of the deceased loved one) from entering consciousness (yellow section). When this is happening avoidant grievers are suppressing (yellow section) this suppression likely exhausts energy and ultimately leads to the mental representations breaking through attempted control and reaching consciousness (red section). Contrasting avoidant grievers those with a less avoidant style simply focus on what is in front of them without trying to monitor their internal mental state as much (blue section).

The brain networks respectively involved in controlling attention towards the deceased (red) and representing the deceased (blue). During a 10-minute period of mind-wandering, avoidant grievers engaged the control network to block representations activated in the representation network from reaching consciousness.

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