The following article is reproduced with the very kind permission of widower, Corey Standford, who is also an Executive Coach & Wellness Author. The article first appeared on his website Stanford Coaching on October 16th, 2014.
Understanding Widow Fog by Corey Stanford
Part I: The Problem
This is the first in a series of brief articles written for my fellow widows and widowers on the topic of Widow Fog. Widows and widowers experience a phenomenon called Widow Fog that begins with the loss of your spouse and can vary in duration and intensity among individuals. This “fog” is often described as being in a disconnected, autopilot state of mindless motion. You have many thoughts but lack the ability to organize and focus on a single thought. Compromised ability to recall, reason, and plan characterizes a breakdown in train of thought such that simple tasks seem overwhelming.
The purpose of this article is to raise awareness and create understanding of Widow Fog. You will find useful insight that will begin to empower you to deal more effectively with this mysterious challenge. Part I will give you a basic understanding of what causes Widow Fog, which is a necessary step in learning to manage it.
The first thing you need to know about Widow Fog is that it isn’t just common; it’s universal. The implication is that you are normal. The second need-to-know is that things won’t always be as they now seem. You can function optimally again. The third realization is that deeper awareness and understanding of what’s going on will empower you to begin the process of moving out of the fog.
Dispersing Widow Fog requires that we demystify it by looking at the science behind it. Your brain has an area called your Pre-Frontal Cortex. I will call this part of your brain your PFC throughout this article. It is the job of your PFC to execute rational thinking, including making sense of your emotions. The PFC is connected to every other part of your brain and essentially operates as your command center, receiving, processing and sending information from and to other parts of your brain. Your PFC is sometimes referred to as your “Executive Brain”, as its main functions are to:
Your PFC can only process one thing at a time. If you visualize the amount of information in your brain as the Milky Way, the amount of information your PFC can hold at one time would fit in your laundry basket with room to spare. So the PFC is very limited in its capacity to hold information.
Your PFC uses up energy and becomes exhausted rapidly. It’s only good for a few hours of heavy use throughout the day. You instinctively know this and resist using your PFC unnecessarily. Routine activities such as driving to work require minimal PFC usage, whereas complex activities such as project planning require intense PFC usage. Your tendency to stick to doing things the way you usually do them instead of doing things a different way preserves your PFC energy. Because your default is to perform the tasks that require the least PFC usage, you might find yourself doing the laundry instead of starting that fix-it-up project you’ve been planning to start for a year. Researcher Dr. Roy F. Baumeister put it this way: “We have a limited bucket of resources for activities like decision making and impulse control, and when we use these up, we don’t have as much for the next activity.”
Widow Fog is the manifestation of your PFC run amok. Your PFC is perpetually overloaded by trying to hold and process too much information under conditions of utter depletion. The overload of information rapidly exhausts your PFC, and your exhausted PFC fails you in its job of thinking rationally and making sense of emotion.
Your PFC makes sense of emotion by processing information received from your limbic system. Your limbic system is the part of your brain responsible for storing long term memories and sending raw emotional signals to your PFC. Your PFC takes the raw emotions and other information from current and past experiences and attempts to create a rational story. The emotions stemming from the trauma of your loss flood your PFC relentlessly, exhausting your PFC, which impedes your ability to understand, decide, recall, memorize and inhibit.
You’ve seen that grief involves being perpetually caught off guard by the type and magnitude of emotions. You’ve found yourself trying your hardest to make sense of it through rational thinking—the stories you tell yourself to explain things. Just when you think things are settled, a tornado of thoughts and feelings tosses everything back up in the air for you to begin sorting again. All the while, you are on autopilot, only able to perform the most routine tasks—if you even remember to do them.
The surreal experience is dreamlike precisely because your PFC behaves as if you are in REM sleep. As you dream, your PFC loses complete control of the executive functions mentioned above and neither processes rationally nor makes coherent stories of your emotions and other information. Upon waking, your PFC can go to work making sense of the barrage of raw material heaved up by your limbic system if you choose to place your attention on your memory of your dream.
Attention is a limited and most precious resource. In Understanding Widow Fog Part II, I will demonstrate why you are challenged in directing your attention, the role directed attention plays in dispersing Widow Fog, and some concrete ways to begin immediately navigating through the fog toward sunshine.