Although loss and the resulting grief is a condition of existence, few realize that it takes a devastating physical toll on the mourner. This is born out by the fact that many who are suffering through a divorce or the death of a loved one often come down with a cold or flu symptoms, or end up with severe headaches or stomach upsets.
For over 40 years I have taught that for every thought and emotion we have there is a corresponding physical manifestation of that thought or emotion at the cellular level. In terms of mourning, the constant stressful thoughts of life without the deceased, poor eating habits, and the inability to sleep often result in a compromised immune system and eventually some type of illness.
What can be done to make inroads on and reduce the emotional and physical stress associated with mourning? Here are seven approaches to consider in dealing with your loss or helping someone else you are supporting.
1. Everyone needs physical outlets for emotional stimuli. This is because the anxiety and tension of grieving manifests in muscular tissue. Consequently, as difficult as it may be, it is useful to incorporate some type of exercise into your self-care plan. Take a walk, do Yoga, find some way to increase heart rate. Depression will be minimized, an increase in endorphins will lift your mood, and you will reclaim some of your energy and endurance.
I know you’ve heard all about exercise before, but don’t the mistake of minimizing the vast importance of this medium for stress reduction in the long hall. A 10-minute walk is all it takes, and if you add a friend to it, all the better. We need each other.
2. Be sure to take a rest period every day. You may feel fatigue because of little sleep (which is quite normal) or people trying to keep you company or on the go for most of the day. Insist on being alone for a short period of relaxation. Find a quiet place in your home, elevate your feet, and scan your body for tense areas. When you locate one—visualize exhaling your breath filled with light—through the tense area. Sense the feeling of release. Remember: do this every day.
3. Fake it till you make it. Caroline Myss, the medical intuitive said, “Most people suffer not because of what others have done to them, but because of what they do to themselves. " You always have the power of choice as to what thoughts you will allow to dominate your thinking—and your stress levels. Use the “fake it till you make it" slogan as a reminder that you can periodically act-as-you-wish-to-be and switch the constant painful thoughts to loving thoughts of the deceased and what you learned from knowing him or her. The mental switch will affect physical feelings.
4. On the other hand, don’t make the mistake of running from your pain full time. You will be adding stress to your life. The ups and downs are necessary and natural to grief. You can overdo the advice to keep busy. Grieve and face the pain is better advice. Then try a diversion or take a rest.
5. Try water therapy or a massage. Soaking in a hot tub can bring needed relief to the tension and anxiety of mourning. Or put some scented liquid soap in your bath tub and relax in the warm water. At the very least, allow your shower to provide some release each day. Also, at an appropriate time try a massage. Massage and the power of touch regulate natural chemicals in the body that affect mood. You will feel the energy change.
6. Nutrition helps you manage stress. If you don’t feel like eating, try drinking a liquid meal. Substitute spring water for the offer of another cup of coffee. There are three things that will guarantee more stress in your life—lack of food, water, or love. Once you systematically meet these needs, take the energy you will have saved, and direct it to honoring your deceased loved one.
7. Use your breathing as a first line of defense against stress. Periodically throughout the day bring your attention to your breathing. This can be done virtually anywhere. Deliberately take some deep abdominal breaths and repeat silently “Slow down" or choose any phrase you like that helps you relax.
8. Make a daily “to do" list. List where you will be going, what you are responsible for, and include your rest period and one positive thing you will do just for yourself. Start a project that will be your ongoing work in progress and list it as part of your “to do" list. This could be a collage, scrapbook, diary, or treasure chest devoted to your loved one or something for your children. Structure will help you reduce stress, but don’t become a slave to it. Rearrange it during the day if you feel it is necessary.
9. All of the above have focused on you. This final recommendation is about what you can do for others by taking yourself outside of yourself. Dr. Dean Ornish, the only person who has shown that heart disease can be reversed, says it best: “Love promotes survival. Both nurturing and being nurtured are life affirming. Anything that takes you outside of yourself promotes healing—in profound ways that can be measured—independent of other known factors such as diet and exercise. "
As your grief wears on, take yourself outside of yourself, keep loving and thinking outside the box. This will nourish your spirit, which is just as much in need as your body and mind.
Finally, it takes vigilance and discipline to manage stress levels when mourning. You will need to establish a routine to take care of yourself and practice the needed changes. You can’t do it all at once. Persist and stay committed to your goal. Don’t allow a failure or two to cause you to abandon your stress reduction program. Make it forever a part of your new life.
Dr. LaGrand is a grief counselor and the author of eight books, the most recent, the popular Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved. He is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (after-death communication phenomena) and is one of the founders of Hospice of the St. Lawrence Valley, Inc. His free monthly ezine website is http://www.extraordinarygriefexperiences.com.