Dealing with Stress and Grief

We all have strategies for dealing with stress in our lives. Dealing with grief and stress after the death of a significant person can be challenging. Yet if we persevere and establish stress management activities it can help us to gain peace, balance and to move forward.

It is acknowledged that the death of a significant person in our lives is one of the most stressful events that we will face. After a death we are left dealing with both grief and stress. The previous stressors we were faced with before our loss do not necessarily go away, they are still there to deal with. However, you may notice that compared to the stress you now face, many other issues fade and become insignificant in your grief.

What is Stress?

Stress is a term used in everyday speech. It is likely that you have been involved in some form of stress management training in the past. However, as you are now dealing with grief and stress it is important for your health to ensure that you understand stress and can find appropriate strategies for dealing with it.

You may already have noticed that some previous stressors have disappeared and lost their significance as you are faced with this major stressor of grief in your life. Just as easily, other seemingly insignificant events may now be causing you a significant degree of distress. You would also have noticed that different people place a different significance on the same set of events and circumstances. What may be a stressful event for someone may not be of any consequence to someone else.

Stress is about our perception of events and how we cope when dealing with stress. Our perception is what we think the event means in relation to ourselves.

By changing or improving our perception of events (beliefs and thoughts), as well as developing better coping and stress management activities we can significantly reduce our stress and increase our quality of life.

Stress if a part of life. We need a certain amount of stress to challenge and motivate us to action. The trick is in being able to maintain a healthy balance. People are often surprised to discover that many of their ailments may be due to stress.

Stress May Lead to:

  • Irregular or rapid heartbeats
  • Headaches
  • Kidney disorders
  • Hypertension
  • Bowel upsets and various mental disturbances

Stress can be induced by a wide range of events in the environment and within the individual, and each of us has a different response to potential stress events.

Fight or Flight

Fight or Flight refers to the general adaptive response of the body to opportunities, pressures and demands experienced. Hormones are released to help us to deal with these demands. The body prepares itself physiologically to defend against threats or changes (increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, increased oxygen to major muscles) to fight, or to run away, flight. While this response is excellent in situations where we need a physical reaction (fight or flight), it can also make us become excitable, jumpy and anxious, and consequently make it difficult for us to make complex decisions or communicate effectively with others.

Stress Responses

  • Increased alertness
  • Muscles tense
  • Increased sweating
  • Mouth becomes dry
  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase
  • Faster breaths
  • Airway expands
  • Blood is diverted to muscles, away from the gut and skin

If you feel you often have a number of these stress response indicators it may be worthwhile having a medical checkup in order to eliminate the possibility of other illnesses. You can also establish stress management activities to help deal with you grief and stress.

Dealing with Stress

To effectively manage and recover from grief and stress we may need to take action with specific stress management activities to:

  • manage and change our bodily reactions or stress responses
  • manage and change our environment or particular stressors
  • change our perceptions of stressful events.

How well are you incorporating the following stress management activities into your daily life?

See if you can use or modify some of these stress management tips to work for you.

Letting go of Resistance

One of the most effective and instant stress management activities for dealing with grief and stress is to let go of resistance and create an awareness of the present moment.

Whenever we feel discomfort and stress, no matter what the circumstances, that discomfort is generally caused by our resistance to a situation being the way it is and not being how we would like it to be. The emotional discomfort of grief and stress is the result of not accepting what is or what has happened. Our resistance to situations and consequently our pain and discomfort is generally unconscious. However, by creating awareness and letting go of our resistance we can do much to reduce our suffering.

We may not be able to change the situation, particularly if we are grieving from the death of a loved one, but we can change our resistance to it by becoming aware of our thoughts, our breathing and our bodies.

Letting go of resistance will take some practice. Try it out on a small emotional discomfort first and observe what happens. Try it again and observe again. You can become your own science project. Don’t stress out if you feel that you are not getting it, as this would only be more resistance. Just continue to be aware of your thoughts, your breathing and what is happening in your body.

EXERCISE: Letting Go of Resistance

If a situation is causing discomfort and stress and there is actually something that can be done to change it,problem solving strategies can help you to resolve this issue. However, if something is causing discomfort and stress and you feel there is nothing practical that can be done to resolve the situation then you are most likely resisting something that has happened in the past or something you fear may happen in the future.

The following letting go of resistance exercise may help you in dealing with stress.

Give yourself several minutes and write down the answers to these questions.

  • Think of a situation where you feel an amount of emotional discomfort or stress. It may be a situation or issue from the past that keeps pushing your buttons or you may be suppressing your feelings towards something (for example it may not have been OK for someone to express their feelings and sensitivities as a child. Therefore they may have hidden certain feelings and reacted to situations in other ways).
  • How did you react to these situations and how do you react to similar situations now? How do you feel about this and what do you do? (for example the person who suppressed their feelings as a child may have concluded that their feelings were of no importance to others, therefore they spent all their time taking care of others needs at the expense of their own).
  • How well are these reactions working for you? Are your current feelings and behaviours helping you to improve your situation and your life?
  • What is it that you may be resisting in this situation?
  • Do you feel that there is an outside source that is responsible for your discomfort and stress? If so, what do you think it is. Sorry, a trick question really. However, it is an opportunity for you to write down all the outside influences that you feel are contributing to your stress. Have a good look at them and see where you are giving them the energy to have this kind of power over you.
  • Is there another way that you could react to or view this situation that could provide a better outcome for you?
  • What are some different behaviours and perceptions that you could work on cultivating in response to these situations?
  • What would happen if you refused to engage in the feelings and behaviours relating to your discomfort and stress?


see also Relaxation TechniquesMindfulness, and Meditation 

Learning how to relax mentally and physically can balance the stress response of fight or flight and help to significantly reduce stress. We can get caught up in the stresses of life and forget how to relax our minds and our bodies. Progressive Muscle Relaxation has been found to be a very effective stress management activity to relax physical tension in the body. Meditation techniques can bring a calm and stillness, and relax the tensions of the mind.

Rational and Positive Thinking

Thinking represents our internal communications and is the basis of how we live our lives. Our thinking determines how we feel and what we do. If we want to change how we feel and what we do, we firstly need to change ourthinking.

Our thinking is one thing that we do have complete control over (believe it or not). Firstly, of course, we most likely need to regain control of our thoughts, as we have probably grown up to believe that we are at the mercy of events and of our emotions. Little wonder we develop irrational and often negative thoughts within such a learning environment.

When irrational, and often negative, thoughts are presented to our subconscious the thoughts are then made real by the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy. How often do we put our selves down (even jokingly), feel inadequate or worry about how others might react? How often does this then become our reality?

We embrace rational and positive thinking by becoming aware of our thoughts. By challenging negative thoughts and making a realistic assessment of the situation. You do not need to become Pollyanna and see everything as good and positive.

At first start working on achieving an equal balance between rational positive thinking and the irrational negative thoughts. Then as you make headway, start developing a clear imbalance of thinking towards the rational and positive spectrum.

Positive affirmations can help to address the imbalance caused by negative and irrational thinking.

EXERCISE: Rational Thinking

Often it is not the situation which causes stress, but the way we see and feel about the situation and consequently the way we react to a particular situation.

  • Become aware of your thoughts. What is it that is turning over in your head? Write it down and see if it is based on rational thinking
  • Identify any negativity, put downs or concerns about what might happen or what others may think? Again, write them down.
  • Look at your lists. Are the based on rational thinking or irrational fears?
  • Now, challenge any irrational thinking and re-write your lists to be positive. Think of someone who you admire for being a positive thinker, how might they see the same situation.
  • Work with positive goal setting and positive affirmations as a stress management activity to help with your grief and stress.

Positive Affirmations

You have no doubt heard about positive affirmations and have probably tried some out. How did you go with them? Was it a little like wanting to win the lottery and then becoming disillusioned when you did not win? Well don’t give up on the strength of a dud lottery ticket.

Positive affirmations help you to think positively, help you to define what it is that you want, and help you to send a clear positive intention for change and growth to the universe.

If you read any of the self help literature you will be told that ‘we get what we focus on’. So there is little wonder that if we focus on our grief and stress, we get more grief and stress.

Read through the positive affirmations basic guidelines below and develop several positive affirmations to help you through your grief and stress.

Positive Affirmations - Basic Guidelines

  • Be clear about what it is that you want. If you are not sure what you want, you can start by working backwards from what you do not want. Perhaps you do not want to feel overwhelmed with the pain of your grief. OK, then just how do you want to feel. Is it happy, light, free, loved? Or perhaps you feel you cannot think clearly and you would like to be more confidant with the decisions you make.
  • Is your affirmation really something that will be of value and support you
  • Make your affirmations clear intentions to the universe and hold an expectation that you will receive them. You are not challenging the universe to a duel. If it is a duel and challenge you are looking for, it will be a duel and challenge that you will receive. So, be clear that it is your genuine intention to receive, genuine expectation to receive and that your affirmations are for your genuine and greater good.
  • Visualise your affirmations. Develop a clear picture of what it is that you want. What does it look like, what does it feel like, what does it smell like. Pretend that you already have it, behave as if you already have it.
  • Date your affirmations and write them down in the positive and present day, as if you already have them (if you set some time in the future, it will always be ‘some time in the future’). You may wish to write them in a book or on notes and post around your home on the mirror or the refrigerator. How and where you write them is up to you. You can write them out several times a day if that will help
  • Refer to your affirmations regularly. Edit them as necessary and make sure that they are still right for you. Continue to hold your positive affirmations with the genuine intention of receiving them.

Positive Affirmations - Examples

Once you know what it is that you want (or are missing) you can then develop the positive affirmation to suite you. The following example positive affirmations may help you to develop your own in dealing with stress.

  • I choose to fill my life with peace and joy
  • I choose to let the energy of the universe heal my heart
  • I choose to accept inner peace and contentment
  • I know that I am loved, cherished and supported by the universe
  • I choose to meet a friend who is generous and loving
  • I choose to be focused and clear thinking

Healthy Sleeping

When you are grieving and stressed it may be difficult for you to get the sleep you need for normal healthy functioning. Try these stress management tips for sleeping to help deal with your grief and stress.

  • Maintain a constant bedtime routine. Go to bed and get up at around the same time each day. Your getting up time is important, even on weekends try to get up at the same time each morning
  • Give yourself enough time in bed to be fully rested. This can be different times for different people. Generally most people need around six to eight hours sleep each night
  • Make sure that you have a good quality, supportive and comfortable bed
  • Take non sleeping activities (well, apart from the obvious) out of the bedroom. This includes watching TV, reading, eating, drinking
  • Make sure that the bedroom is dark when you turn the light out. Close the blinds and get rid of any distractions. Your body needs to know that when you turn the light out you are serious about going to sleep
  • Leave some time between your last meal and going to bed and if possible make this meal light and easily digestible. Do not eat a large meal just before bedtime as your body will be busy digesting the meal when you are trying to sleep
  • Avoid napping through the day
  • Avoid strenuous exercise at least three hours before bed time
  • A warm drink of milk and ten minute progressive muscle relaxation stress management activity before bedtime can help you to relax ready for sleep
  • A warm shower before bed will also relax you and help your body prepare for sleep
  • Cut out all caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, preferably altogether, or at least for several hours before bed
  • Read of listen to something that is calming and peaceful for around ten minutes before bed
  • Write down any persistent head chatter in a note book so it is out of your head and if it is necessary you can deal with it in the morning
  • Develop strategies for dealing with anxiety so you do not take your worries to bed with you
  • If you wake up during the night and just cannot go back to sleep, get up and go to another room. Read or do something light and go back to bed when you are feeling sleepy. Do this every time you are struggling to get to sleep after ten minutes from being in bed
  • If you wake in the morning up to one hour before your get up time, just get up. Don’t struggle trying to go back to sleep and don’t stay in bed past your get up time
  • Go easy on yourself. You are training your body to sleep and to recognise that bed is for sleeping. It may take a little while.

Healthy Eating

Healthy eating habits throughout life help to reduce the risk of many health problems. It is particularly important for you to maintain a healthy diet during this time of grief and stress. You may have lost all inclination to eat and it is likely that you probably are not interested in food preparation. It may also be that you could be eating everything in sight in compensation for you loss.

Dietary Guidelines 
In the Dietary guidelines for Australians A guide to healthy eating(2005), the National Health & Medical Research Council NHMRC recommends:

Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods

  • Eat plenty of vegetables, legumes and fruits
  • Eat plenty of cereals (including breads, rice, pasta and noodles), preferably wholegrain
  • Include lean meat, fish, poultry and/or alternatives
  • Include milks, yoghurts, cheeses and/or alternatives (choose reduced-fat varieties where possible)
  • Drink plenty of water

Take care to:

  • Limit saturated fat and moderate total fat intake
  • Choose foods low in salt
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Consume only moderate amounts of sugars and foods containing added sugars
  • Prevent weight gain with physical activity and eating according to energy needs
  • Prepare and store food safely