Stress is a given, whether it’s experienced in response to major life events or minor everyday occurrences. When life is going okay, your stress ebbs and flows. It’s kind of like one of those little kiddie roller coasters – all small peaks and tiny dips.
When something terrible happens, your stress level rises dramatically and you may feel as though you’ve boarded the ‘Mega Mind-Blowing Super Stress Coaster’.
The stress experienced after the death of a loved one is kind of like the ‘Mega Mind-Blowing Super Stress Coaster’, except grief has many uncomfortable peaks and goes on for an unpleasantly long time.
Which roller coaster looks the most threatening to you? Many people would say the middle one looks the most dangerous, but research has shown that everyday, ongoing, chronic stress can be just as harmful as a major stressful event to your mental and physical well-being. So lucky you, the ‘Grief Coaster’ includes a major life event and ongoing chronic stress. What a thrill!
The Internet has no shortage of articles on stress, but a specific discussion about grief and stress certainly couldn’t hurt considering all the potential stressors associated with the death of a loved one. In this article, we’ll address the experience of stress in grief and coping with stress.
Stress in Grief:
It’s impossible to parse the stress experienced as a result of a loved one’s death out from normal everyday stress. For that reason, when conceptualizing stress in grief, it may be wise to accept that all your stress is now swirling around in one big stress cauldron – making stress soup – yum. That said, here are a few basic reasons why stress levels may increase dramatically after the death of a loved one. In the interest of time (and your attention span), we’re unable to write an exhaustive list.
Change: Many people will find that after the death of their loved one they have to adjust to a life that looks nothing like it used to. Like one domino knocking down the next, the death of a loved one can cause secondary loss after secondary loss, which means an immense amount of change.
Emotions: Experiences like trauma, loss, and grief can evoke new and intense emotions that people often feel ill-equipped to deal with. Part of what makes something stressful is an individual’s belief that they lack the resources to cope with it. Internal conflict is also a common source of stress. As we noted in a recent article, people often find themselves experiencing conflicting thoughts and emotions in grief.
Pressure: It would be wonderful if after the death of a loved one people were given a grace period to grieve. One long enough to allow them to process their emotions, cope with logistical issues, and, I dunno, get their lives together. Sadly, people often experience the opposite when they receive pressure, both from others and from themselves, to…
- move on
- be normal again
- feel better
- wear pants with non-elastic waistlines
- support other grieving family and friends
- step into new roles
- let go
- go back to work
Frustration: Frustration is a common source of everyday stress. Frustration occurs when the pursuit of something is prevented or thwarted. Basically, frustration occurs when a person wants something they can’t have or wants things to be a certain way when they aren’t. After the death of a loved one, when the one person you want is gone and everything you knew about life has changed, things can feel very frustrating.
How people experience stress often comes down to how they perceive and appraise the situation. In their 1984 book, ‘Stress, Appraisal, and Coping’, Lazarus and Folkman explained that humans make two appraisals when responding to stress: a primary appraisal and secondary appraisal.
In the primary appraisal, a person evaluates whether the potential stressor is relevant to them. If they determine the stressor is relevant, they then decide if it is also threatening.
If the stressor is determined to be both relevant and threatening, a person then makes a secondary appraisal by asking themselves – “Do I have the resources and skills necessary to cope with this stressor?”
After a loss, the response to this second question is often a resounding NO!
When faced with grief, emotion, change, frustration, and all the other peaks on the ‘Grief Coaster’, one’s first instinct may be to think they don’t have the strength or abilities to cope. Still, the ride isn’t ending anytime soon, and there’s no way to get off, so what choice do they have?
Coping with Stress:
Ideally, in this scenario, a person will choose constructive coping, but we should mention that people are especially susceptible to negative coping when feeling overwhelmed, confused, stressed-out, and/or exhausted.
Not so constructive ways to cope with stress:
- Giving up
- Blaming others
- Defensive coping
- Striking out at others
- Substance use
- Other negative coping
Stress has been linked to a number of mental and physical health problems, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, migraine, headaches, ulcers, sleep problems, and anxiety and depression, so it’s wise for grieving people to actively seek out constructive ways to cope with their experiences. WYG has written many articles geared towards helping people cultivate positive coping. Here are a few suggestions…
Constructive ways to cope with stress:
- Keep a stress journal
- Keep any kind of journal
- Avoid unnecessary stress
- Learn to say ‘no’ and draw boundaries
- Avoid people who stress you out and who create problems for you
- Eliminate unnecessary responsibilities and tasks
- Express your feelings
- Put problems in perspective
- Practice gratitude
- Don’t try to control things that are out of your control
- Process feelings that are keeping you stuck like anger, blame, guilt, regret, shame, etc
- Count to ten when angry or overwhelmed
- Take deep breaths
- Talk to someone
- Eat well
- Get your anxiety under control
- Seek support
- Reduce substance use
- Do something you enjoy every day
- Get enough sleep
- Do yoga
- Get a hobby
- Make manageable and realistic to-do lists
- Take things one step at a time
- Don’t catastrophize
- Congratulate yourself for the progress you’ve made each and every day
- Spend time with animals
- Disconnect from electronics
- Ask for help and be willing to accept help