From curling up in a ball to shaking to feeling disconnected, grief gets into every fibre of our being. Psychotherapist and grief counsellor Julia Samuel has this self-care advice - including why exercise is so important
I am a qualified psychotherapist who, for the last 30 years, has specialised in bereavement both in private practice and the NHS. I’ve worked with hundreds of people from all walks of life, who’ve had to deal with a wide variety of death experiences; from the traumatic tragedy of a child dying, to the expected death of an aged parent.
When I was trained as a counsellor, I was taught about the stages of grief and how we have to go through these stages psychologically to adjust to the death of the person we love. In my first years, I observed that grief is as much a bodily experience as it is in the mind. For example, one client, Ben, kept rubbing his legs when he was talking about the death of his wife in a tragic accident. I asked him: “If your legs could speak, what would they say?" He didn’t reply for quite a few minutes and spent the time breathing heavily with tears running down his face and his hands rubbing his legs in a rhythmic motion. Eventually, he said: “I want to run, I want to run and rescue her…and I can’t.” As soon as he said this, the tension from his body was released. This primitive instinct to want to run and rescue his wife had been stuck in his body, unvoiced, until that moment.
I would experiment with my own body too, because working with grief every day took its physical toll. I slept badly, felt anxious and was always short-tempered. However, I soon began exercising regularly and found a passion for kickboxing which was the most fantastic stress buster and enabled the tension in my body to be softened. Meditating also enabled me to find a sense of inner calm.
Over time, I developed an approach to grief – the Eight Pillars of Strength – which provide support to the bereaved when grief leaves such a cavernous hole.
Below are three pillars which re-establish the relationship between the mind and the body and help you build recovery.
1. For a body is on high alert: exercise plus meditation
The pain of grief is felt physically in our body and affects our thinking and behaviour; it is often experienced much in the same way as fear and tips our bodily system into a heightened state of alert. We need to establish a regime that helps to regulate our body, which then helps to support us emotionally. The more habitual the action, the more effective it is. The regime should include regular exercise that pumps up the heart rate, like running or cycling, even walking fast, or combative sport which has the added bonus of funnelling some of the anger we feel into the game. By doing this, we are telling our body to switch off the 'fight or flight' response because we have physically 'flown'. It then allows our body to relax, using up the cortisol and releasing the hormone dopamine which calms us down.
Once we have exercised, taking the time to do even a ten-minute relaxation or meditation adds another layer of support to wind down the body and help us feel less scared. I think the Headspace app is as good as any. You could stretch while you take deep breaths, or sit and relax, whichever suits you - but you will soon get hooked on the feeling of calm and release that the combination of exercise and relaxation brings.
The aim of these behaviours is to help regulate your system, to help it weather the bursts of strong emotion that can feel like they are blowing you away. Eating regularly, without huge spikes of sugar, coffee and alcohol also helps steady your system. By this, I don’t mean that you have to be like a police state watching what you eat, but people are often drawn to drinking or eating to anaesthetize the pain when what it actually does is give your body an initial hit, followed by a crash.
2. When you feel powerless: take back control of your day with a gentle routine
In the chaos of grief, we can feel as if our world has tilted off its axis. It can therefore help to build a pillar of structure - although with some flexibility within it, as too much controlling behaviour can be counterproductive. Develop a structure of good habits. This can include exercising first thing because we often feel so low when we first wake up, so just getting out of bed and starting to move really helps. It is also helpful to spend a little bit of time in the day doing things that distract you from your grief like work or chores, as it gives you a feeling of accomplishment when you can feel so powerless when someone has died.
The person who has died is likely to be in your mind most of the time, so actually sitting down and focusing on them, by looking in your memory box or at photographs gives a focused connection that can also feel very supportive. Additionally, actively choose to do soothing, calming things regularly such as buying nice flowers, having a massage, cooking, watching box sets, listening to music and reading (although for some it takes a long time before they can concentrate on reading). Treats really do help when your world can feel cold and unsafe.
More and more research shows the importance of sleep to our mental health, which is often disrupted when we are grieving. It helps to keep your bedroom cool, turn all machines off and give yourself a going to bed routine, so your body prepares for sleep.
MORE GLOSS: 15 ways to get a better night’s sleep
Developing a structure of good habits has a multiplying effect: the more we do them, the better we feel. It takes about six weeks for a good habit to become habitual, until we do it without thinking about it.
3. To reconnect with yourself: ask your body what it needs
‘Focusing’ is the technique that helps us to open up and release the bodily intelligence in people’s bodies. The procedure I ask clients to follow, which you can do for yourself is:
• Close your eyes
• Breathe deeply and slowly, in through your nose and out through your mouth, three times
• Direct your attention internally
• Move your attention around your body until you find the place where there is the most sensation
• Breathe into that place
• Find a word that describes that place – does it have a shape, a colour? Is it hard, soft?
• If the image could speak, what would it say?
• Then follow where the image takes you
I haven’t offered neat solutions or quick fixes here, but ways of supporting yourself. I really want to help you find the courage to endure the pain of loss, accept the support you need and crucially, learn to help yourself through these pillars of strength. You will find that over time, there comes a profound sense of gratitude for having loved in the way you did and in honouring the memory of that person. Their legacy lives on in you and you will grow from that experience.
Julia Samuel is author of Grief Works, Stories of Life, Death and Surviving, £8.69