How to overcome grief’s health-damaging effects

The deaths of friends and family members become more common as you age. Here is how to endure the grieving process.

Published: April, 2018

Image: © kali9/Getty Images

Most men don't face much personal loss early in their lives. Yet, once they reach a certain age, they will encounter the experience of losing someone important to them — a spouse, a friend, a relative — and the feelings of grief that often follow.

"Grief is a natural response to loss, but it is something that men are not prepared for, and they often struggle to understand how it can affect their lives," says Dr. Eric Bui, associate director for research at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders and Complicated Grief Program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

The effect on mind and body

Doctors classify grief into two types: acute and persistent. Most people experience acute grief, which occurs in the first six to 12 months after a loss and gradually resolves. Some, however, experience persistent grief, which is defined as grief that lasts longer than 12 months.

The death of someone you love can shake the foundation of your existence and affect both mind and body. During a period of grief, you can become preoccupied with thoughts, memories, and images of your friend or loved one, have difficulty accepting the finality of the loss, and experience waves of sadness and yearning.

"Many men suddenly feel vulnerable, since they lost a companion or friend they looked to for support," says Dr. Bui. "They also begin looking closer at their own mortality, often for the first time."

Chronic stress also is common during acute grief and can lead to a variety of physical and emotional issues, such as depression, trouble sleeping, feelings of anger and bitterness, anxiety, loss of appetite, and general aches and pains. "Men may try to resist grief, but it's important not to ignore these symptoms, as constant stress can put you at greater risk for a heart attack, stroke, and even death, especially in the first few months after losing someone," says Dr. Bui.

People who experience persistent grief should seek out a therapist or counselor to help them work through the grieving process. This may include focused treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy and complicated grief therapy. For the more common acute grief, as with any other highly stressful life event, it is well worth thinking through strategies that can help you overcome or at least manage the stress that comes with loss.

Coping with grief

A study led by Dr. Bui, published online Nov. 26, 2017, by the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, found that a specially designed eight-week mind-body program can help reduce stress in older adults who have lost a spouse.

Here are the main components of the program that you could follow when dealing with acute grief.

Take up yoga, tai chi, or qigong. Not only can these mind-body activities help you relax, but they can reverse the effects of stress and anxiety on a molecular level, according to a study in the June 2017 Frontiers in Immunology. In people who regularly engaged in these practices, researchers found less activity of genes that create inflammation in the body. Many classes are designed specifically for stress reduction. You can find these classes online or inquire at local yoga studios and community centers.

Maintain a healthy diet. Stress triggers cravings for sugar and fat, which is why you reach for feel-good, high-calorie and high-fat processed food. Yet these foods can make you feel worse. Instead, focus on keeping up a well-balanced diet. That means eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins, and drinking plenty of water.

Follow good sleep hygiene. Grief is emotionally exhausting. After a loss, people often find that their sleep is disrupted — they have trouble falling asleep, wake up in the middle of the night, or sleep too much. "Going to bed at regular hours, following a bedtime routine, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol in the evening helps with more restful sleep," says Dr. Bui.

Get moving. A simple daily walk can help ease depression, agitation, and sorrow related to grief. It is often difficult to find the energy to exercise, so if you lack motivation, enlist a workout buddy or join an exercise group.

Keep tabs on your health. It's easy to ignore your general health when grieving. This includes skipping doctor visits and forgetting to take your medications. "Schedule all exams for the coming year, so you don't miss them, and set timers on your phone or computer to help remind you to take your medications as scheduled, or ask a friend or family member to assist by checking in with you daily," says Dr. Bui.

Take on new responsibilities. The loss of a spouse or family member may mean you have to take over certain routine jobs. For example, you now may be in charge of the cooking, general house upkeep, or organizing financial records. While these tasks can be additional stressors, Dr. Bui suggests turning them into a positive experience. "Taking on a new responsibility can keep your mind focused on a task and distract you from your grief," he says.

Reach out to your social circle. While it can be painful to see people, it is important to maintain connections with others. "This reminds you that you are not alone, and even if you feel isolated, there may be family members, friends, or even neighbors who can give a supportive hand," says Dr. Bui. Set up a weekly get-together for lunch or coffee, or invite people over for a monthly potluck. Or just make an effort to communicate with someone every day, either by phone or email.

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