Have you heard it said that “the only constant in life is change”? This quote is often attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and certainly gives us pause for thought. Understandably, changes that involve a loss of some kind are particularly difficult to manage. In the western world, it’s common to imagine our lives on a positive trajectory of steadily reaching personal goals ─ like finding a fulfilling career, settling down with the right partner, travelling abroad or accomplishing other objectives that have meaning for us. Having said that, we’re not always well-equipped to handle adversity.
Whether it’s the death of a loved one, sudden unemployment, chronic illness or something else, loss is normally not something that we plan for. It takes us unawares and can really test our emotional resources. Let’s take a look at some basic ways to positively manage the stress caused by loss.
Start with self-compassion
This doesn’t mean feeling sorry for yourself. When we’ve suffered a loss, we all need time to process what has occurred and what emotions we’re going through. Expect to be on an emotional roller coaster while you sort through what the loss means to you. You may initially feel numb and out of touch with your feelings ─ experiencing a feeling of detachment, or imagining that the event is not actually happening to you. Rest assured that this is all normal and perceiving that you’re somewhat removed from the situation is your mind’s way of protecting you until you can absorb the full extent of the loss.
As you grieve, it’s helpful to be aware that everyone grieves differently. One model proposed by Swiss-born psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, is that grief usually has five stages ─ denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance ─ that don’t have to be experienced a linear fashion. While this model was popularized, in part, for grieving the loss of a loved one, it has application for other losses as well.
Maintain basic self-care
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, you may be operating on autopilot and forgetting to look after some of your basic needs. Your sleep could be disrupted sleep. You may not feel up to eating. Sometimes the prospect of getting outside for some fresh air and exercise or even getting out of bed for a shower can seem daunting. If you’re having a hard time in one or more of these areas, the key is to set small, manageable goals for yourself. Were you up all night with a busy mind? Then take a nap when you’re able to. ‘Can’t face eating a meal? Try small snacks throughout the day. And, a short walk down the block can stand in for your usual workout routine if you’re not up for it yet. Incorporate a few kindnesses into your self-care practices too by treating yourself to some comfort food, using aromatic essential oils or taking a soothing bath ─ whatever works.
Schedule your day
To positively manage the stress caused by loss, it’s extremely beneficial to schedule your day. Depending on the particular circumstances that you find yourself in, your normal schedule may have disappeared. Plus, the loss may have caused a change in your living environment or resulted in new obligations to take care of. For example, maybe you’ve lost your home due to a flood or fire, or perhaps you have a funeral to arrange. Decide where you have some control, divide your day into manageable time periods and plan what you’re going to do. It could be as simple as getting through the morning with some self-care, making one important phone call in the afternoon and going to bed early with a good book.
Take alone time
Having some time to yourself is necessary to successfully manage the pressure you’re under. Your emotions are likely to be all over the place and your mind may be on overdrive trying to come to terms with the loss you’ve experienced. In addition, there could be others relying on you for support or looking to you for guidance. Making time to get away on your own for a little while now and then, even if it’s just to do a coffee run or take the dog out, will give you a needed break. As matters settle down, make sure that you can carve out more restorative time for yourself.
Access your coping tools
We all have ways of coping in difficult situations ─ some helpful and some not so much. You may be tempted to fall into some unhealthy patterns to get through the day. However, this is a time when you really need to dig deep and access all the ways of coping with stress that have served you well in the past and see if you can apply them to your current circumstances. For instance, maybe it’s time to find that old journal and begin using it again. Putting your thoughts down in writing can let you vent your feelings and gain some perspective. An added advantage is that when you look back on your journaling later on you can see how far you’ve come in handling the hardship.
Try out new ways of coping
Keeping your coping methods fresh will serve you well as you encounter different losses throughout your life. Have you wanted to learn how to meditate or been interested in yoga? There are online and classroom-based opportunities to guide you in developing these therapeutic practices. Many other stress-relieving tools exist that can definitely assist as well. Here are a few ideas you may or may not be familiar with:
- use a mantra ─ there is some evidence that repeating a prayer, affirmation or an inspirational saying that has meaning for you can assist you to move away from negative thought patterns and calm your anxiety.
- work with your breath ─ promote your body’s relaxation response by pausing to take several slow deep breaths now and again. Stress can cause your breathing to become shallow, starving your brain of oxygen to think properly.
- focus on gratitude ─ reflecting on what you’re grateful for is a proven coping method that helps you reframe your thinking about your difficulties.
- try visualization ─ using your imagination to picture a positive future outcome or play a mental movie of yourself getting through your loss can be powerful. One example is from Viktor Frankl who explains in Man’s Search For Meaning how he survived a concentration camp by dreaming of lecturing about his experience afterwards. In Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson discusses how visualizing a happy memory during adversity works to alleviate stress.
As neuroscience evolves, there are a host of other ways to positively manage stress being discovered.
Engage your support system
Everyone needs a support system when navigating the stress caused by loss. Decide who you’re most comfortable discussing things with and then reach out to them. Be aware that your energy will be at a lower ebb than normal so you want to minimize the time you spend with individuals whose company leaves you feeling drained rather than restored. Take care also to balance connecting with others with taking alone time to reflect. Furthermore, recognize that professional help can be an invaluable tool to positively manage the stress caused by loss. The best resource may be your primary care physician, a personal counselor, a support group or all three.
Don’t forget the power of social connection. Positive psychology research tells us it’s crucial to our overall happiness. Activities such as taking an acting class or volunteering at a food bank will get you out among other like-minded people and distract you for a while from your troubles. Besides, assisting others in need reduces stress by boosting our good feeling hormones.
Move towards being at peace with your new reality
No matter what loss you’ve suffered, positively managing the stress includes moving ahead when you’re ready and accepting the new reality. Be mindful that this will take a while, and to get there you must take the time to sit with your thoughts and honor your feelings. You may go through periods of profound sadness, self-doubt, entertaining “if only” fantasies or even self-recrimination if you feel somehow at fault. This can be especially challenging when you’re faced with continual losses due to a chronic illness or when you have more than one major loss happen over a short period of time.
Adjusting to a loss is not a straight journey forward. The memory of your loss may resurface in vivid detail when it’s triggered by future adversities you encounter. This can give you a feeling of being right back where you started from in your attempt to manage your stress level. When this happens, try to come into the moment and use the coping methods that you’ve relied on previously. Remember that no one escapes loss in life and be comforted that with each difficulty you positively manage, you’re building resilience that will help you cope better with whatever losses the universe has in store.
article by Sandra Bell-Murray
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