A Grief Support Blog

This blog will allow you the opportunity to acquire both support and guidance after experiencing a significant loss.

Emotional muscle memory

The biochemistry of the human brain is being deciphered rapidly. Neurotransmitters have been identified, quantified, and classified. We've learned that our brains memorize passageways from stimulus to response at nearly unperceivable speeds. What is also obvious is that once the electro-chemical coding takes place and becomes entrenched, it is very hard to dislodge. So what else is new? We could have told you that a long time ago.

It’s pretty simple - "What you practice is what you get good at" - even ending sentences with prepositions. The best example of both sides of this equation is illustrated in having learned fingering on the piano incorrectly, and then at some later date, trying to relearn it correctly. It’s not impossible, but comes in the range of very difficult, maybe 8 or 9 on a scale of ten. Shifting from music to sports, one of the world's most recent phenoms, Tiger Woods, is an example of the positive side of physical muscle memory. Most people know that Tiger started playing golf at the ripe old age of one and a half, with excellent instruction, and now is far and away the best golfer in the world. "What you practice is what you get good at" - there I go again. Still in the golf world - it is said that in a tournament, marginal swing skills will crumble under pressure.

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If you ever needed an explanation for Tiger Woods' success, it is that his fundamental, memorized swing is very, very good, and therefore holds up under pressure. At the Grief Recovery Institute we coined a phrase that relates to the emotional muscle memories we all acquire in childhood:

"In a crisis we return to old beliefs and the behaviors that accompany them."

Grief, by any reasonable definition is a crisis. Whether the grief is caused by the death of a loved one, or a divorce, or any other major, emotional, life-changing event, it creates a crisis. Confronted with the myriad feelings caused by loss, we struggle to identify the beliefs and actions stored in our brains that will help us deal with the crisis. Good plan - that is until our brain scavenges around and finds that the only pieces of information that it has stored on the topics of grief and recovery from loss are not effective. In addition, having discovered whatever resources we have, we apply them, even with their limited merit or viability, because they are all we have.

definition of grief normal and natural reaction to loss.jpg

Most of our emotional muscle memory storage bins contain a host of outmoded and inaccurate ideas about dealing with loss. Those ideas have been unwittingly passed from generation to generation without benefit of a serious look to see if they are useful and current.


There are six major myths, which we have chronicled in our books, that keep each succeeding generation tied to those obsolete ideas. There are two tasks that confront anyone who wants to deal more effectively with the losses that are limiting their lives. First is to identify the buried ideas that crop up in response to a crisis of loss, and to recognize and dismiss those that are unhelpful. Second is to replace them with the ideas and actions that lead to completion of the unfinished business that is the hallmark of all significant emotional loss. Oh yeah, there is a third thing, and we're sure Tiger would endorse this idea; practice, practice, practice, so you can develop a new emotional muscle memory that will hold up in a crisis. We may not all be able to wear the green jacket emblematic of the mastery of golf, but we can all learn to master the tools and actions that can lead us out of the very rough emotions caused by the painful losses which cause major changes in our lives.


If you'd like to learn more about the Myths About Grief, you can download our free grief eBook below, or we suggest the following articles from our searchable Grief Blog:

Understanding Grief: Still the most off limits topic (Grief Myths Intro)

The Best Grief Definition You Will Find - our definition of grief

Grief Books: The 5 Best Books Ever Written on Grief Recovery

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Image credit: 123RF Stock Photo


Very good info...I responded negatively to a divorce (stimulas) and now have replaced that old behavior with a new behavior i.e exercise and helping others. Please send me more information on grief and loss as I work in the field of Foster care/Adoption

Your mode of explaining everything in this post is truly good, every one

can easily understand it, Thanks a lot.

My Mom died and then my Dad died 18 months later. I feel like I Cannot Breath Emotionally. I want to become a grief counselor and help others that may be dealing with the same pain as I am.
My Mom died and then my Dad died 18 months later. I feel like I Cannot Breath Emotionally. I want to become a grief counselor and help others that may be dealing with the same pain as I am.

My mom died on February 17 th 2019, while I sat at my husbands bedside with the news
that the cancer had spread to his liver and extensively to his bones. On June 30th, 2019 my husband died..Somewhere in between we lost 5 cousins and friends.
My heart is heavy, some days are better than others. I am at a loss on how to help my children through their own grief.

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