I am a qualified psychotherapist who has specialized for the past 30 years in bereavement in both private practice and the NHS. I have worked with hundreds of people from all walks of life, who have had to deal with a variety of death experiences; From the agonizing tragedy of a dying child, to the expected death of an elderly parent.
When I trained as a counselor, I learned about the stages of grief and how we must go through these stages psychologically to adapt to the death of a loved one. In my early years, I noticed that grief is as much a physical experience as it is in the mind. For example, one client, Ben, kept rubbing his legs when he was talking about his wife’s death in a tragic accident. I asked him, “If your feet could talk, what would you say?” He didn’t answer for a few minutes and spent his time breathing hard, tears streaming down his face, his hands rubbing his legs in a rhythmic motion. In the end, he said, “I want to run, I want to run and save her…and I can’t.” As soon as he said this, the tension from his body faded, and this primal instinct of wanting to run away and save his wife was stuck in his body, without a sound, until that moment.
I would also test my body, because working with grief every day took its toll on the physical. I slept poorly, got anxious and was always irritable. However, I soon started exercising regularly and found a passion for kickboxing which was the coolest way to get rid of stress and made it possible to relieve stress in my body. Meditation also allowed me to find a sense of inner calm.
Over time, I have developed an approach to grieving – the Eight Pillars of Strength – which provides support for the loss when grief leaves a cavernous hole.
Here are three pillars that restore the mind-body connection and help you build recovery.
1. For the body on high alert: exercise in addition to meditation
The pain of grief is felt physically in our bodies and affects our thinking and behaviour; It is often experienced in the same way as fear and directs our bodily system into a heightened state of alertness. We need to create a system that helps regulate our bodies, which then helps us support us emotionally. The more usual the procedure, the more effective it is. The regimen should include regular exercises that increase the heart rate, such as running or cycling, or even brisk walking, or combat sports which have the added benefit of injecting some of the rage we feel into the game. By doing this, we are telling our bodies to turn off the “fight or flight” response because we are physically “flew”. It then allows our body to relax, using cortisol and the release of the hormone dopamine that calms us down.
Once you exercise, taking the time to do even a ten minute relaxation or meditation adds another layer of support to calm the body and help us feel less afraid. I think that Headspace App She is as good as any. You can stretch while taking deep breaths, or sit back and relax, whichever suits you best – but you’ll soon be hooked on feeling calm and releasing a mixture of exercise and relaxation.
The point of these behaviors is to help regulate your system, to help it withstand the surge of strong emotions that can feel like they’re taking you away. Eating regularly, without too much sugar, coffee and alcohol spikes also helps stabilize your system. By this, I don’t mean you have to be like a police state watching what you eat, but people are often drawn to drinking or eating to numb the pain when what it’s actually doing is hitting your body with an initial blow, followed by a crash.
2. When you feel powerless: Take back control of your day with a gentle routine
Amidst the chaos of grief, we feel as if our world has drifted off its axis. So it can help build a strut for the structure – although there is some flexibility within it, as too much controlling behavior can be counterproductive. Develop a structure of good habits. This can include exercising primarily because we often feel very weak when we first wake up, so just getting out of bed and starting to move really helps. It’s also helpful to spend time in the day doing things that distract you from your grief like work or housework, because it gives you a sense of accomplishment when you feel so helpless when someone dies.
The person who died will probably be on your mind most of the time, so sitting and focusing on them, by looking in your memory box or at photographs, gives a focused connection that can also feel very supportive. In addition, actively choose to do calming and calming things regularly such as buying beautiful flowers, getting a massage, cooking, watching chest groups, listening to music and reading (although it takes a long time for some before they can focus on reading). Wizards really help when your world feels cold and insecure.
More and more research is showing the importance of sleep for our mental health, which is often disrupted when we feel sad. It helps keep your bedroom cool, turn off all appliances, and give yourself a routine for going to bed, so your body is ready for sleep.
More shine: 15 ways to get a better night’s sleep
Developing a structure of good habits has a double effect: the more we do them, the better we feel. It takes about six weeks for a good habit to become a habit, until we do it without thinking about it.
3. To reconnect with yourself: Ask your body what it needs
Focus is the technique that helps us open up and release the physical intelligence in people’s bodies. The procedure I ask clients to follow, which you can do on your own is:
• close your eyes
• Breathe in deeply and slowly through your nose and exhale through your mouth three times
• Direct your attention inward
• Move your attention around your body until you find the place where you feel the most
• Breathe in that place
• Find a word that describes that place – does it have a shape or color? Is it hard and soft?
• If a picture could speak, what would it say?
• Then follow where the picture takes you
Here I don’t offer exact solutions or quick fixes, but ways to support yourself. I really want to help you find the courage to bear the pain of loss, accept the support you need, and most importantly, learn how to help yourself through these pillars of strength. You will find that over time, there is a deep sense of gratitude that you loved the way you did and honor the memory of that person. Their heritage lives in you and you will grow from that experience.
Julia Samuel is an author Works of Grief, Stories of Life, Death and Survival, £8.69
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