Managing the Effects of Grief and Stress
What is grief? Basically, it’s our reaction to loss of any kind: the loss of a job, a divorce, the ending of a friendship, and of course, the death of someone dear to us. When describing “grief”, perhaps the American Institute of Stress said it best: “Grief is "intense and multifaceted, effecting our emotions, or bodies and our lives" (Source: American Institute of Stress).
The Connection between Grief and Stress
There are, according to William Worden, four "tasks" in mourning a loss. Your grief work is done when you have:
1. Accepted the reality of the loss
2. Fully experienced the changing ‘pains’ of grief
3. Successfully adjusted to your changed environment
4. Reinvested in life and in new relationships
Each task brings with it varying levels of stress. In truth, you could say grief is stress. It’s a process involving those four tasks, and each task presents physical, mental, spiritual and emotional challenges. It calls into question our fundamental beliefs about ourselves and our world. It shakes us to our very foundations, and we’re called upon to reinvent, and reinvest in, ourselves. Talk about stress!
What are the Effects of Grief and Stress?
When you lose something or someone dear to you, chances are you’ll feel a combination of emotions: depression, sadness, frustration, shock, fear; even guilt. Your emotional stability will be affected too; grief is often described as a “roller coaster” of emotions.
Your body reacts to grief too; you’ll certainly feel tired. You can also feel physically weak, as if all your strength has drained away and left you unable to do things you used to find easy. You could experience tightness in your chest, a change in your heartbeat or difficulty breathing. You’ll either lose your appetite (or overeat to soothe anxiety). You can suffer from insomnia or just want to sleep the days (and nights) away. You can find yourself crying at unexpected times, both publically and privately. Mourners often retreat from their social lives, becoming more and more isolated over time (which complicates everything). It’s a confusing time; so much so ne woman wrote, "I was unprepared for the sleepless nights and the feeling of wanting to walk around in a protective bubble” (Source: Parmenter).
It can take weeks, months, or even years to move through your grief. Here’s the bad news: you'll never completely get over the loss of your loved one. As Jandy Nelson wrote, "Grief is forever. It doesn't go away; it becomes a part of you, step for step, breath for breath" (Source: Goodreads).
So, what can be done to help you maneuver through grief, finally accepting and integrating it into your life?
Use a Multi-Faceted Approach
Since your grief itself is a multifaceted reaction to loss, it makes sense your approach to mourning should also be multifaceted. Each facet of grief: the physical reactions to loss, the emotional, spiritual and psychological reactions must be attended to throughout your mourning. Remember, attention is everything: always do your best to aware of how you’re doing. Other things you should do include:
Getting it all out. If possible, express your emotions and observations creatively. Journaling, photography, painting, musical composition can all find value at this time in your life.
Taking action to help others. Doing things for others helps to move us out of ourselves and into the wider world. Don’t just sit and wait for grief to go away, because it won’t. You feel better when you do something for someone else.
Exercising regularly. Even if it just means going for a walk three or four times a week. You don’t have to join a gym, or sign up for a yoga class, but you could. Whatever you do, just be sure to be gentle with yourself. In other words, don’t exercise obsessively. (Remember “moderation in everything”!)
Eating regularly. You’ll probably experience changes in your appetite; the goal here is to nourish your physical body so your brain can work at its best. Eating 4 or 5 small meals a day is one way to ensure you’ve got the physical strength to do the work of grieving.
Being aware of your limitations. Let’s face it; you’re not at your best when you’re grieving. So again, be gentle with yourself. Don’t have high expectations of how much you can accomplish during bereavement: this isn’t the time to have a long list of goals to achieve. (While it’s good to have a goal–such as “lose 25 pounds” or “repaint the bathroom”–this probably isn’t the best time to expect to get anything done.
Closely monitoring your physical well-being. Grief can cause bodily suffering: unexplained aches and pains, dental issues, gastric discomfort...the list of the physical effects of grief is a long one. It’s always smart to see your family physician if your body is behaving differently. Don’t make the assumption that you’re “doing fine”; let your doctor decide.
Attend to your spiritual needs. The death of a loved one can cause us to question our spiritual beliefs. If you’ve always been an active member of a church or synagogue, but now find you no longer believe in the teachings, then it’s time to talk to your pastor, priest or rabbi. For those who have no such affiliations, sometimes a death in our network can lead us to a new faith in which to find solace.
Grief and Stress Go Hand-in-Hand
In the work we do for families each day, we see the relationship between grief and stress quite clearly. As we’ve seen grief wear away an individual’s body, mind and spirit, our advice to you is simple: stay attentive to the many aspects of your experience of grief. If you wish to speak to a caring professional about the nature and duration of your grief, please call us. A member of our staff will be honored to listen and offer suggestions based on his or her personal and professional grief experience.
American Institute of Stress, "Grief", accessed September, 2016
Parmenter, Sarah, "The Things Nobody Tells You about Grief", Lifehacker, September 25, 2013
Worden, William, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, 4th Edition, Springer Publishing Company, LLC, 2009