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The importance of self-care while grieving

Even though grief is a full spectrum experience that affects us on multiple levels, the emotional impact tends to get the most press, with descriptions of people experiencing sadness, anger, and isolation. The physical, cognitive, and behavioral effects can often come as a shock, leaving people confused and overwhelmed by reactions that aren’t as well known. For many people, grief interrupts their sleep, appetite, ability to concentrate, and physical health. This is why it’s so important to cultivate care and support that addresses each of these realms. At The Dougy Center, we provide children and teens with a variety of outlets for expression including music, art, dramatic play, and physical activity. If you are grieving, or know someone who is, it can be helpful to think through how to best nurture the body and mind.

Here are three basic categories to keep in mind:
Movement
Breath
Reflection


Even if you already have practices in place that address these three categories, sometimes grief can be a game changer, requiring us to find new strategies. The intensity of grief stresses our nervous system, and can lead to exhaustion, irritability, anxiety, and a general sense of being on edge. Movement, focused breathing, and intentional reflection help your nervous system metabolize this stress and restore a sense of ease and calm.

Build in physical activity. You don’t have to sign up for a marathon, but making time for movement is one of the best ways to care for your nervous system. Fulfilling our daily responsibilities while grieving can be extremely time-consuming, so start small. Take a few five minute walks throughout the day, put the dishes aside and play with the kids or the dog, or if you have the time, try out a yoga class or a weekend hike.

Spend a few moments each day focusing on your breath. Studies repeatedly show that intentional deep breathing helps calm your body’s fight/flight/freeze response. Pick something you do every day, such as brushing your teeth or waiting at red lights, and use that as a time to take 5-10 deliberate breaths. You can also play with drawing out the exhale a moment or two longer than the inhale. Pay attention to what you notice while you’re breathing. What sounds, sensations, thoughts, and emotions come to the surface?

Take a moment to tune into the emotions and thoughts that come up while talking about your grief with other people. We can be so quick to push our feelings aside in the name of being present for others or not making them uncomfortable, but acknowledging these responses helps you stay connected to your own experience. It also enables you to make more informed choices about what you need, rather than reacting in a daze or numbing out. Do you ever find yourself automatically reaching for caffeine, sugar, or television after a difficult experience or interaction? If so, try to wait a few moments to minutes before doing so. Something this simple (but not necessarily easy) can go a long way to build more awareness about your response patterns. If you are someone who journals, track the instances when you find yourself automatically reaching for distractions as a way to feel better. Over time, see if you can expand the time between when stressors occur and engaging with those distractions.

Create a gratitude practice. This might seem trite given how saturated popular culture is with catchy phrases of thanks, but research again supports that conscious gratitude really does shift our thinking and also our neurobiology. Sometimes we have to dig deep to find anything we’re grateful for, but it can be worth coming up with two or three things once a day. Perhaps this is something you do privately, writing them in a journal or thinking about them on your commute, or maybe it’s something you share with friends and family.


There is a multitude of possibilities for self-care while grieving and these are just a few suggestions to consider. What works for you will be as unique as your grief. If you keep the basic tenets of movement, breath, and reflection in mind, you will make such a positive contribution to your nervous system and yourself. We’d love to hear about the self-care practices that work well for you. Share them with us on Facebook.