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How it can help with grief and loss

By Edwina Griffin

Dealing with grief and loss has a huge impact on our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, and it can feel like our core foundations have been shaken. The loss of a loved one is a major change and requires an adjustment period, and when the loss is sudden, this adds to the impact and stress on your body. It is useful to have many tools in your toolbox to support you, help you cope and build your strength both physically and mentally.

One of the challenges, when you are grieving and stressed, is knowing what you need. You need to be clear on where you are now so you can move forward effectively with the best choices. Friends and professional help can assist with observations and insights, as can mindfulness practices.

Mindfulness is focusing your awareness on the present moment and acknowledging your feelings, thoughts and emotions, as well as the environment around you. This might include noticing a beautiful flower or the warmth of the sun and checking in on your emotional state at any one moment.

The process of labelling emotions is a reminder that you are not your emotions, and you can observe your emotions objectively as something separate from your being. Once emotions have been labelled, this awareness means you can consider what you may need.

Meditation practice can help to reduce your symptoms of stress, train your mind, and build your long-term resilience during this time. There is extensive research to show the benefits of meditation and mindfulness on reducing stress[1]. Other benefits include improved focus[2], memory[3], improved sleep, mood and emotional regulation[4].

Meditation can be thought of as relaxing the body and calming the mind, and there are several postures and many meditation techniques to choose from. Some examples of meditations include mindfulness, mantra, movement, vipassana, transcendental, focused and visualisation.

Thoughts can tend to trap our attention, so instead of trying to control your thoughts, a simpler and often more effective strategy is to do something to relax your body. Physical relaxation is a prerequisite for mental and emotional calm, and therefore physical relaxation can be a good place to start when trying to relax your mind. Many meditations such as body scan focus on physical relaxation, while yoga is also another practice that focuses on relaxing the body.

Breath is a key component of meditation and yoga. Deep, diaphragmatic breaths stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system responsible for relaxation and recovery. Deep breaths reduce heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels that have been activated by the fight or flight response[5].

Many people find meditation hard to do, and sometimes it takes a long time to feel the benefits. Modern technology has made it easier to fast track your meditation experience and takes you into a deep, relaxed space faster with the use of virtual reality.

Australia’s first virtual reality meditation app, AtOne, uses real and virtual scenery, scents, music and guided meditations for a multi-sensory approach to meditation. This immersive experience means regardless of whether or not you think you can meditate, you are taken into a beautiful environment, listening to relaxing music and smelling beautiful scents.

Other approaches to strengthen the body such as Pilates and cardio exercise will improve your mood and strengthen your mind. Cardio-vascular exercise releases many neurotransmitters that help regulate your mood, and improve both your appetite and sleep, including dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.

Pilates strengthens your core muscles and improves your posture, which can be powerful when shifting mindset. If you think about how you stand or sit when you are feeling low, typically you look down, your head is down and shoulders are rolled forward. Shifting your posture to pull your shoulders back, head and eyes up will open your chest to enable better breathing and can shift your mindset towards a more positive state.

Some days will be easier than others when you are grieving. The key to all these tools is to have compassion for yourself, make time each day for you and allow yourself the space and flexibility to choose what it is you need and want to do. Aim to use a combination of the tools in this toolkit and continue to add to them. Meet up with friends and make these activities as fun as you can. Remember laughter and smiling can be the best medicine of all, and if you don’t feel like laughing, faking a smile can be enough to release endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals – so even that will help to make you feel better.

[1] University Duisburg-Essen, Germany study (stress)

[2] Dept of Psychology, Swarthmore College study, 2018 & Dep’t of Neurology at UCLA study 2011

[3] UCSB study 2013 (memory & focus)

[4] New York University study, 2019 & Michigan University study (1) 2017 (attention, memory, emotional regulation); Department of Psychology, University of Montreal & Boston University, 2013 meta-analysis (all benefits)

[5]University of Nebraska study, 2006 (benefits of exercise on mental health)

About the Author: Edwina Griffin has worked in the fitness and wellness industry for 25 years with her fitness centres and brands Fitwomen, Fitmum & Fitmen. She has taught meditation for 20 years and continues to do workplace training and mediations.