A friend of mine just had his first child, a boy.
He was complaining about the lack of sleep that goes with that. I told him about how little sleep I got after my daughter was born two months prematurely (almost 23 years ago!).
His response: “Oh, wow, I really shouldn’t feel sorry for myself… you were a warrior to go through all that!”
Stay with me here.
In a recent episode of her new podcast, Unlocking Us, well-known emotions researcher and TED talk speaker Brene Brown debunks this notion of “comparative suffering.”
Comparative suffering sounds something like this:
“I can’t be afraid of being sick right now, because there are people sicker than me.”
“I can’t be afraid for my children, because there are homeless children who have nowhere to sleep tonight.”
“Why should I be tired and angry right now? I have a job when so many people don’t.”
But that way of thinking can cause harm…
That’s because your emotions are always valid, no matter how trivial you may think they are compared to someone else’s pain.
In fact, we’re all going through some very similar emotions right about now.
And for the sake of our mental and physical health, it’s crucial that we name and acknowledge them.
Chief among the unacknowledged emotions that can hijack your health right now is grief.
Grief is about loss, not just about death
Let’s face it: we’re all grieving right now.
Even if, thank God, we haven’t lost a loved one or friend, we’ve lost other things that make our lives stable and predictable.
We’ve lost our social connectedness. For many of us, we’ve lost the daily contact with our work colleagues, who are like a second family.
For others, like me, we have adult children in other states and other countries. The feeling of not being able to allow my daughter back into my home now, because of my high-risk status, cuts like a knife, even though we both know it’s necessary.
We’ve lost our habits and habitats, as interfaith chaplain and trauma counselor Terri Daniel calls our habitual, daily, mundane routines that have suddenly been ripped from our days.
Getting coffee at the same coffee shop every morning, or stopping for a chat with a friend at the supermarket, are gone for the time being.
And, we’ve lost our assumptions and security.
Normally, we go to sleep assuming we’ll wake up the next morning, “that the sun will be there and your friends will all be alive and you’ll be healthy,” says Francis Weller, a psychotherapist from Santa Rosa, California.
“What we once held as solid is no longer something we can rely upon.”
If we don’t acknowledge these losses and find ways to grieve them, they’ll damage our physical health.
How unacknowledged grief can damage your health
Your body knows you’re grieving, no matter how hard you try to suppress the emotion.
Your heart, immune system, blood pressure, ability to sleep, energy levels — all are affected.
Grief is a stressor and it’s been shown that in the six months following the loss of a loved one, the body releases more of the stress hormone cortisol.
Most of us are living a long-term grieving situation now, so it’s especially important to prevent constantly elevated cortisol levels that can impact your weight, your thyroid levels, your memory and — most importantly right now — your immune system.
We know that unexpected losses can weaken the heart and trigger stress cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome,” which weakens the heart silently until the final heart attack where the heart just gives out. And we know a weakened heart is a weakness coronavirus can exploit.
Healthy ways to cope with grief
Clearly, the grieving we’re doing now is unique. Still, some tried-and-true ways of helping your body cope with grief, and with stress in general, can still help…
1. Listen to classical music to lower cortisol. Researchers at Ruhr University Bochum (Germany) found that listening to both Strauss and Mozart lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels. It’s called the Mozart effect—and it works!
2. Take up yoga, tai chi or qigong. On Friday nights, my daughter has a virtual yoga session with two of her friends. They use an online video.
The ancient practice of yoga can produce lasting changes to your nervous system that help regulate your stress response.
3. Reach out. You may be stuck in your home alone, but you can reach out to family and friends daily just by picking up your phone. Try some face to face time as well using your phone, tablet or computer.
4. Throw yourself a pity party. Now, this may be a new way to cope, but it has its merits. It’s a way to acknowledge that things are bad at the moment and give yourself permission to experience and release your emotions. That may mean allowing yourself to cry or indulge in self-care that you “deserve,” like a warm bath, chocolate and day of just binging your favorite shows.
5. Follow good sleep hygiene to sleep better. Grief is emotionally exhausting. Going to bed and getting up at a regular time can help you get more restful, restorative sleep. Also, avoid alcohol, caffeine and screen time in the evening. Here are some tips and products that can improve sleep.
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- Coronavirus Has Upended Our World. It’s OK To Grieve — NPR
- 64 Examples of Disenfranchised Grief — What’s Your Grief
- How Grief Can Affect Your Health — WebMD
- 5 Ways Grief May Affect Your Health — Get Healthy Stay Healthy
- COVID-19 Resource and
Information Guide — The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)