The GRIEF System: Sadness, Loneliness and the Loss of Attachment

This article is the sixth in my series in my series on the late Dr Jaak Panksepp’s model of the neurological origins of human and animal emotions. Follow these links or earlier articles on the CARE, FEAR, RAGE, SEEKING and LUST Systems.


“Some days I wake up and feel normal, then I remember and I get crushed all over again”. Pearl* had broken up from her first long-term boyfriend 3 months ago and was still reeling from the loss.

“I always go to the park near our old place, I sit on the bench and think.”  Mo’s* young daughter had died 10 years earlier and soon after he had had a permanently disabling work accident. “Those good times are lost forever, but I can’t help but try to relive them”.


Sadness, Why?

I regularly speak with clients about the positive functions of “negative” emotions. Most people grasp easily that anger and fear help with security and protection (fight or flight). But it is harder for most to understand the benefit of sadness?

What good is sorrow? Why would we have evolved to carry such a painful emotion? Deep sadness renders us useless for even basic daily functions. How on earth could have this helped our ancestors survive?

One way to understand such a perplexing emotion as sadness is took look at animal versions of it. Infant animals that are separated from their mothers engage in heart-aching distress vocalisations. When the brains of separated animals are scanned, particular systems and structures light up. Neuropsychologist Jaak Panksepp calls these areas, the GRIEF System.

So why did grief emerge?

The GRIEF system is like a dark mirror to the CARE system. The CARE system is associated with feelings of warmth and confidence that comes from being close to caregivers and secure attachments. GRIEF, on the other hand, is associated with feelings of loss, loneliness, anguish and even panic, which occur when we are apart from our loved ones and from our comfort zone.

Thus, GRIEF emerged to punish us for being apart and alone. So that we always remember the importance of connections and CARE.

Sadness, Where?   

The GRIEF system encompasses areas such as Periaqueductal Gray, the Dorsomedial Thalamus, the Anterior Cingulate and parts of the Cerebellum. These areas were mapped in the brains of animals, such as guinea pigs, that engaged in distress vocalisations.

Subsequent research on humans found that more or less the same areas of the human brains activated when human subjects reported feeling very sad. Pankseep suggests that these GRIEF brain anatomies are shared with all human-blooded vertebrates (i.e. all birds and mammals).

Panksepp proposes that the GRIEF system evolved out of the primitive pain network. Key evidence for this theory is the effectiveness of opioid medication on treating both physical and emotional pain. Opioids are drugs such as heroin, codeine and morphine. The mammalian body produces its own opioids. The lack of these home-grown opioids can activate the GRIEF system.

Administering opioid medication can provide feelings of security similar to those provided by being close to loved ones. Some depressed people are liable to opioid addiction due to the low level of soothing self-made chemicals. Mammals, Panksepp states, “are literally addicted to social relationships”.

Sadness, What Now?

The research on the GRIEF system is deeply personal for Jaak Panksepp. He writes evocatively and painfully about the death of his own teenaged daughter and three of her friends at the hands of a drunk driver. He puzzles how he, a man whose life work has been to illuminate the workings of the brain, could succumb to deep depressive grief. He attributes his own recovery, in part, to the presence of a loving partner and supportive friends.

Clients of mine, such as Mo and Pearl, also experience separation-based sadness. These clients need more than anything to return to their secure base of family and friends in order to feel warmth and connection. To be safely held while they grieve.

But what if we don’t have family or friends?

Our individualistic society rams home the message that we don’t need to be connected to others to be healthy and happy in life. We just need to be friends with ourselves. Look for the solution within. All you need is self-love.

But this is a lie.

Some of my clients have also discovered, to their detriment, the slyly soothing effects of opioids to ease grief. Mo remained stuck in grief due to an opioid addiction which had left him estranged from family and friends. Opioid addiction is what you get from impact of the ancient GRIEF brain structures and the modern individualised world.  Solving the attachment problem with a pill.

For people who lack family of friends, the safe stable attachment to a therapist is a good place to start building a more secure and connected future.



* Name and key details changed to protect anonymity

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