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How to maintain your health while grieving

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Use these techniques to look after your emotional, mental, and physical well-being while grieving a loss

Losing a loved one can feel all-consuming. Grief not only affects your emotions, but it also leaves its mark on your body and mind, altering your overall bereavement health. The good news is you can use a few techniques to lessen the negative effects grief places on your emotional, mental, and physical well-being.

How grief affects your health

Dr. Merryn Snare, registered psychologist and teacher, says grief manifests in your body in what she calls the “four domains”: emotional, physiological, behavioral, and cognitive. Symptoms like muscle pain, intense emotions, and degraded memory are “part of the mind and body response to a situation of overwhelm,” or a way for your body to try to react normally in an abnormal situation. She says understanding why these responses occur is the first step to learning to live with them.

Emotional and cognitive impacts of grief

If you have recently lost a loved one, you’ve probably experienced an array of emotions and felt like you’re in emotional turmoil. Mood swings from anger to sadness to guilt are common. Sometimes, these symptoms manifest in your cognitive abilities, too.

“It’s very common for concentration and memory to be affected, which has the flow-on effect of things seeming so much more difficult than they used to,” says Snare. “Then there is often a tendency for ruminating thoughts, which can lead to a sense of hopelessness.” 

Physical and behavioral impacts of grief

Snare says physiological responses to grief can include early symptoms, like a racing heart, a constricted throat, or sweaty palms, and long-term symptoms, such as stomach pains, headaches, musculoskeletal pain, and a weakened immune system.

If your grief causes behavioral changes, such as disrupted sleep and loss of appetite, they can worsen physical symptoms, Snare says. Sometimes these behavioral changes cause extreme fatigue and difficulty concentrating.

How to maintain proper physical health while grieving

Relax your mind

Meditation or actively setting aside time to calm your grieving mind can relieve stress and help you recharge. Set aside a few minutes per day, at whatever time makes the most sense for you, to practice mindful meditation. If you don’t know where to start, try a mobile app, like Calm or Headspace, or a guided meditation video.

Get proper rest

To minimize your sleeplessness while grieving, try to maintain a regular bedtime and wake time and develop a calming night routine that could include turning off electronics, taking a warm bath or shower, listening to white noise, or misting your pillow with essential oils.

Engage in gentle exercise

While you may feel an urge to exercise intensely or entirely stop exercising while grieving, finding a happy medium between the two is the best thing for your physical health, Snare says. While not exercising has obvious detriments to your health, over-exercising can lead to burnout, injury, or feelings of failure for not hitting impossible workout goals. Instead, try going for regular walks at the length and pace your body will allow.

Eat a proper diet

Comfort foods, like ice cream and chips, may seem tempting during bereavement, but a poor diet can exacerbate feelings of depression and reduce your energy levels. Try to maintain a relatively balanced diet while you’re grieving that includes vitamin-rich fruits, vegetables, and proteins. But avoid limiting yourself too much or setting strict eating guidelines — which, again, can lead to feelings of failure — and instead opt for a self-caring approach to nutrition.

How to tend to your mental health while grieving

Avoid substances

You face a higher risk of alcohol and substance abuse after experiencing a major loss, so it’s very important to be mindful of your consumption. While turning to alcohol to numb sadness may seem like an obvious “don’t,” other substances, like caffeine or sugar, can become similarly addictive if you use them to boost your mood. Try sticking to a maximum of one cup of coffee per day and one glass of alcohol per week, especially during bereavement.

Seek support and avoid isolation

“Grief is a time when people need someone to listen, not tell them to pick up their game or move on,” Snare says. 

She recommends seeking grief support from professionals, particularly counselors who understand grief, and turning to friends and family members familiar with feelings of grief to avoid isolation.

Set aside time daily to grieve and reflect

Snare says it’s important to remember that every negative emotion that comes with the loss of a loved one is perfectly normal, and you should allow these feelings to happen to properly cope. For example, grief can make you feel like you’ve lost control, and you may try to control or avoid your feelings in defense. Instead, if you take the time to grieve, you can instill a greater sense of control over your feelings while you unload and understand the loss. Snare suggests doing this by allowing yourself to remember what she calls “smile inside memories” with the loved one. You can try reflective writing in a journal, having a cry session, reading grief books, or looking through old photos.

Follow your normal routine

While behavioral changes are typical while grieving, Snare suggests remaining mindful of the routines you adopt and returning to your version of normal as quickly as possible following a loss. This not only includes maintaining regular sleep, work, and hygiene schedules, but it also means making time to incorporate activities you enjoy into your schedule. Even if you don’t feel like doing them initially, they may help you find relief over time.

Where to find grief support

If you’re feeling stuck within your grief and unsure where to turn, you have more grief support options available now than ever. If you find comfort in confiding in others, you can try traditional in-person grief support groups or one-on-one grief counseling in a therapist’s office or online

If you prefer more anonymous and confidential support, phone hotlines and call centers can connect you to the help you need — even via text messaging if you don’t feel like talking. You can receive group support from the comfort of your home through online grief forums and email support groups.

Photo credit: iStock

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Find grief support

Search for grief support resources, such as in-person groups, online forums, and phone hotlines, available in your area.

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