Loss is difficult no matter what it is – a loved one, health, a job, a pet, or even something intangible like dreams you set for yourself but can’t achieve. When you care deeply for someone or something, there’s a range of painful feelings and emotions. Loss can be frightening, shocking, and definitely stressful. Use these 7 coping strategies to overcome your emotional feelings so you can improve your health and longterm mindset amidst the stress of loss.
Finding your “new normal”
When you lose a close loved one, you often hear surviving family members talk about finding their “new normal.” It’s a natural process of finding ways to cope with the loss and finding hope in life again.
The adjustment is a process full of intense feelings and memories. It’s not only part of the stages of grief, but the stages of any major life event.
While not as devastating as death, you may experience the intense emotional feelings of grief during any loss in life including job loss, divorce, miscarriage, serious illness, or retirement.
If you felt a significant attachment to the person, thing, or situation, then you may experience grief when you lose that part of your life.
Sometimes, it’s more than just an emotional response. With unemployment or a chronic or serious illness, there are financial implications too.
Know that your journey is unique, and don’t compare yourself to others. While there are emotional similarities and themes, know everyone’s path is unique.
“Each person’s grief journey is as unique as a fingerprint or a snowflake.”
~ Rabbi Earl Grollman
Define for yourself what your “new normal” is, and know that it may be different than a close family member or friend also experiencing that loss.
While your grief may fit one or more of these categories at some point, you may not experience every stage of loss, and it may not be in this order. You may only experience a few things, and you may spend more time in one stage than another.
Again, every loss is different and your grief journey is too. Think of the stages as a way to put what you’re feeling into context and understanding that the range of emotions is normal.
Accept and understand the differences in identifying what a “new normal” means for you and others.
Health impact of chronic stress
While finding your “new normal” is part of the healing process, it’s important to be on the lookout for the feelings to overtake all aspects of your life or to impact your health.
Losing someone or something is stressful. Over time, it takes a toll on your body, so it’s important to manage it and be mindful of the warning signs.
The health problems associated with the stress of loss can be significant, if not addressed and appropriately managed. Studies show a link between chronic stress and some of the leading causes of death, like heart disease and some cancers.
Chronic stress can cause trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, tiredness, difficulty sleeping, anger, bitterness, and anxiety.
A study from the University of Iowa revealed a possible link between stress hormones and short-term memory loss in older adults. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, revealed that having elevated levels of cortisol — a natural hormone produced by the adrenal glands — can result in memory lapses as we grow older.
There is a growing body of research that suggests job loss can also significantly impact a person’s health, such as when the stress affects one’s immune system or brain function. Yet more evidence emerged from a study by a group of epidemiologists at Yale who found that layoffs more than doubled the risk of heart attack and stroke among older workers.
Another titled “Job Loss and Health in the U.S. Labor Market,” by Kate W. Strully, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Albany, found that a person with no pre-existing health conditions who lost his or her job had an 83% greater chance of developing a new health condition, like diabetes, arthritis, or psychiatric issues.
Coping with the stress of loss
There are steps you can take to build and maintain your spirits while you recover from a loss, to decrease your stress level, and to help mitigate the potential impacts on your health.
In addition to taking better care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising, there are other tools you can incorporate into your life, to help you get through your suffering and come out stronger, including:
- Face your feelings.
- Identify your stress triggers.
- Believe in yourself.
- Find a grief outlet.
- Practice gratitude.
- Focus on mindfulness.
- Live a healthy lifestyle.
Face your feelings
Sadness, depression, and anxiety may make it hard for you to get out of bed, so it’s critical to deal with what you’re experiencing.
Acknowledging your feelings, accepting them, and challenging them can help you deal with the situation and move on or find your “new normal.” It is also important to recognize that people respond differently to loss, and the time it takes to move beyond, it can vary significantly from person to person. So, while stress and grief which reach a level that becomes incapacitating makes seeking help essential rather than trying to muddle along on your own, for some, it may take quite a while for the depth of their emotions to begin to recede.
Identify your stress triggers
Just when you think you’re finding your “new normal,” something may trigger your emotions. It may be as simple as music that your loved one or a smell. Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that cause triggers.
Some milestones may trigger your emotions like birthdays and anniversaries.
Identify the triggers and understand that they will return from time to time. Knowing what they are will help you cope better.
Believe in yourself
Trust yourself. You have survived other traumas, and you have the ability, although it might be difficult to survive this one.
Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.
~ Leo Tolstoy
You will get through this loss with time. Take small steps and believe you can overcome the loss. It won’t be a perfect road and don’t expect perfection from yourself. Pick up where you left off when you let the emotions overcome you, and eventually, you’ll have a coping strategy that works for you.
Find a grief outlet
Bottling up your emotions will only cause you more stress. Find a way to release your feelings, whether it’s exercising, journaling, music, art, or a support group. Find an outlet, even if it’s something new or something the person you lost enjoyed most.
We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.
~ Kenji Miyazawa
When you look at the pain and emotional distress as “fuel,” you’ll find your “new normal.” Even if you are angry with your boss for laying you off or over the loss of a loved one, you can channel that negative energy into something positive.
In time, work toward framing that loss in a way that positively shapes your future. You can do this through gratitude or mindfulness.
It may seem like the last thing you’re capable of doing when you’re suffering from a loss, but gratitude can help in your healing journey. Gratitude is not just for happy times. There’s something to be grateful for even amidst your pain from a loss.
You can even think of gratitude as your “fuel” to re-energize your soul.
Robert Emmons is a leading scientific expert on gratitude and a professor of psychology. He says when you view life with gratitude, you’re focusing on its entirety and not allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by your temporary emotions or situation. Think of it as a new perspective on life.
When you have a gratitude practice and outlook, you build up a “psychological immune system” that protects you when overwhelming emotional responses to the loss are triggered.
Emmons goes on to say it’s not a “form of superficial happiology” but a way to realize the transforming power of gratitude in a time of loss or crisis. You can turn a challenging and emotional situation into an opportunity.
It may take time to get to that point, but it works. Linda Roszak Burton is an executive coach and friend who experienced loss and found the healing benefits of gratitude. She wrote about her experience and research on gratitude in an inspiring book and journal that can help you create a sustainable gratitude practice so you too can experience the healing benefits of gratitude. Gratitude Heals offers supportive coaching and practice techniques, inspirational quotes, research, and resources so you too can find gratitude.
If you want to try gratitude, start with a journal. It’s a great way to focus on the positive in life, even amidst tragedy or sadness.
Mindfulness during loss
The mind is powerful. Imagine a new situation. Start to think about what life could be like despite your loss.
Whether you do this through a gratitude practice of mindfulness, find a way to reframe your outlook, and mentally manage your loss.
Researchers examined 18 studies that focus on the impact of mind-body interventions (MBIs) like tai chi, yoga, qigong, mindfulness, and meditation on your body. Published in Frontiers in Immunology, the experts concluded that these activities could help you relax and reverse the effects of stress by changing how your genes behave and reducing inflammation.
When you’re stressed, your body goes into a fight or flight response. It’s part of evolution, dating back to the hunters and gatherers when life was a daily battle with survival.
It’s easy to fall into the stress-mode because you’re pre-wired for it. Over time, though, it has an impact on your health, especially when you’re chronically stressed.
Engaging in a mind and body activity can change how your body reacts, having a positive impact.
In older adults who lost a spouse, research showed an 8-week mind-body program that focuses on stress decreases the mental and physical impact of emotional distress. If this interests you, look for a Stress Management and Resiliency Training: Relaxation Response Resiliency Program (SMART-3RP) near you.
Again, start small. Try these 4 powerful stress-management exercises that you can do from your home, with no skill or equipment needed, other than your mind.
Live a healthy lifestyle
Finally, don’t overlook the powerful benefits of a healthy lifestyle during times of need. Take care of your body. Eat healthy, get enough sleep, and exercise. Focusing on the basics may be all you can do, and trust that by themselves, they will have an impact.
Whichever stress management technique you choose to cope with your loss, start small. Don’t try to do too much at once, especially at the beginning. You may only be able to process your emotions for one hour at a time. Build on that over time and don’t expect perfection. Eventually, you’ll work toward a new mindset, so stress doesn’t impact your life negatively.
If you are in crisis, an additional resource may be the toll-free, 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
Have you experienced this kind of loss? How did your stress manifest itself and how did you get through it?
The aforementioned and foregoing information, resources, links and/or references (collectively, the “Materials”) are provided solely for informational purposes and are not intended as medical or other professional advice. No representation or warranty of any kind is made in connection with the content of the Materials. The Materials may not be current, and no one should take any action based on the Materials without first consulting their healthcare professional.