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How to Allow Grief in the Body: 7 Steps

Brittany McBrideArticles

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By Dr. Jennifer Christian

The experience of sadness or grief is never an easy emotion. It can emerge due to a loss of a loved one, a pet, a romantic relationship, both long term or short lived. Grief can come in unexpected ways, maybe a job opportunity didn’t materialize in the way you were hoping and you underestimated how much it would affect you. Loss and grief has a way of staying around in our nervous system at a cellular level, if you don’t properly attend to it in a healing and compassionate way. This same dynamic of shutting down in childhood is repeated in our relationships as adults.

“Ignoring grief in the body is kind of like a psychic constipation—the energetic fields in our body start to shut down and become stagnant.”

What is usually left, if sadness and grief are ignored, is a subtle sense of dullness in our experience, or we feel exhausted all the time and we don’t know why. For others anxiety is experienced as body tightness or racing thoughts. Perhaps a belief is adopted that we need to “power through” and “be strong”, or there is an excessive clinging to positive emotion in a disproportionate way. For most, it can be combination of all these experiences at some point, minimizing what is below the surface. Without realizing it these mental fixations prevent us from dropping into our bodies and feeling around into the truth of our experience.

Learning how to be with grief or sadness can be essential for reconnecting to our innate sense of aliveness and capacity to thrive in our lives. This process can help us to realign once again with our mind and body. What is left is a deeper sense of compassion and ease into our experiences. Our capacity to handle the challenges that life throws at us grows. We begin to trust the movement of our lives as we surrender to the path of healing.

(NOTE: If you have a history of trauma or you find these practices emotionally overwhelming to do on your own, seek out a professional psychotherapist to support you.)

1) Removing judgment

When unfelt emotion is stuck in the body, the mind has a tendency to maintain that separateness (between our minds and our emotional bodies) by sophisticated defenses such as minimization, self-blame, longing, or comparison. These defenses leave us feeling depleted and likely even more isolated in our experience. The simple act of noticing that one of these defenses is present is already in and of itself the first step to reducing this unconscious behavior. Many of my clients don’t even realize there is a subtle sense of self-blame or minimization imbedded in their story of loss.

“A practice of self-forgiveness can often be essential in order to deepen the healing process.”

A four line Hawaiian poem of Ho’oponopono is intended for inner healing for ourselves and our relationships. Give yourself some time in either your meditation practice or just sitting quietly. Repeat these 4 phrases to yourself around “your story” when you notice any self-blame, criticism, or an uncomfortable habitual mental story that you can’t get your mind to drop. Breathe gently with each line, mean it in your heart. Allow whatever emotion that may want to come up by placing your hand on your heart.

 

Ho’oponopono

I’m sorry.

Please forgive me.

Thank you.

I love you.

2) Trust your body

Your body really does know best. Often we push away the tightness in our chest, the nervousness in our bellies, or the tension in our throats. The human psyche has a sophisticated capacity to distract and ignore our body’s natural cues. However, these are often essential cues in the body that point to the healing that is needed. Yoga and meditation can be a great way to quiet the mind and allow yourself to notice how the body feels when a certain “story” comes up in the mind. When you catch yourself in a habitual thought or daydream that is distressing, take a deep breath and ask yourself to notice what is going on below the surface in the body.

It takes practice to become skillful in noticing your body and attending to your inner experience. With practice, you allow yourself to catch the emotional energy before it materializes into an intellectual defense (i.e. minimization, blame, comparison, or being excessively positive). Stillness practices such as yoga and meditation are intended for this exact dynamic, bringing a sense of awareness and ease in the body so the mind does not over dominate and distort. After a while, as you learn to attend, release, and allow, these ego defenses can drop away and what is left is a sense of deeper intimacy with being-ness and ease in the body and mind.

3) Give yourself permission to cry!

I’ve cried in countless restrooms, yoga classes, even Bart rides and Caltrains. There is a lightness that can follow a cathartic cry. Often times it only takes a minute or so. Other times you will need to find a quiet time in the day where you can be alone. As a psychologist, I’ve learned that releasing my emotions is so often a better alternative to feeling tight in my body and intellectually rationalizing my pain and “story”. It often takes so much energy to defend against how we feel, that we are left feeling exhausted, depressed, anxious, or confused.

However, if we can step out of our own way (i.e. drop into our emotion and allow ourselves to feel and not identify with our story) we can use that emotion to heal. Your only job is to facilitate the opening and movement of authentic emotion without holding back. Holding back takes so much effort that we often zap ourselves from having the initial energy to do such concentrated emotional clearing. When we bring attention in this way, we allow ourselves to release and be in the moment. This kind of attentive, nurturing, and caring way of being with our emotional bodies is essential to allow that grief to move up and out, so our energy centers can clear themselves.

Restorative or yin yoga can be great places to allow yourself to release where the body is storing and holding back emotional energy. Let those tears FLOW!!!

4) Meditation

Yoga or mindfulness meditation can be a great complementary practice to support emotional releasing. In Buddhism, one aspect of the Eightfold Path is mindfulness. Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) defines mindfulness as, “Awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally… It’s about knowing what is on your mind”. A meditation practice can substantially help you to see your thoughts as just that, thoughts.

Clearing the mind can help allow whatever emotions need to move, noticing what thoughts actually prevent that movement (egotic defenses) and what thoughts help facilitate healing (such as being compassionate to what’s here). With practice, you can learn to be-friend your mind, notice it’s patterns and defenses, and hold your awareness to all that is here. Over time, you can learn to be skillful in noticing your bodily sensations and emotions below the surface, feeling into them, and allowing them to be integrated back into the whole of your nervous system.

5) BodyWork

Since physiological changes occur when we release emotion, bodywork can often be an essential practice to supporting the body. Not only is yoga great for this, but I often recommend my clients to take epsom salt baths at home, visit a sauna or spa, receive acupuncture, or get a deep tissue massage. Bodywork modalities such as these can facilitate and restore the energetic movement of deep emotional releasing. Below are some local SF resources can be found at the bottom of the page.

6) Give yourself time

“A core aspect that is needed for healing is INFINITE PATIENCE.”

I know that it’s a hard one to hear, but know that it can take months even years for the physiological and psychological aspects of our experience to integrate and re-align. Even if doubt and worry predominate our experience at times, it takes practice to give yourself to the process. Know that a deeper evolution is happening in your being. You are coming up against aspects of your experience that you did not know how to tolerate before, but are learning to. As you invite compassion, tenderness, and a letting go of knowing how it should be, you can begin to tune in deeply to presence and healing.

7) It’s okay to not know what the F&#* is going on!

Emotional healing can be accompanied by a sense of disorientation, confusion, and uncomfortable feelings. You may feel like a toddler some days relearning how to “be” and the mind often wants to know what is happening in the case of uncertainty. This is very normal as your nervous system is reorganizing itself. Try to suspend yourself from making absolute conclusions about the process. Stay curious as to what is coming up and know that whatever is happening, it’s happening because you’re ready to receive it–or else it would not be coming up.

A deeper sense of meaning will emerge once healing has occurred, after your emotions have been released and integrated into the mind and body. However, to prematurely label the meaning of your experience, even if it temporarily relieves anxiety, will often stunt or stop the process. So just trust that clarity and meaning will be there for you the more that you give yourself to the unknown. Ironically, this attitude is what will facilitate the healing. It is only once your emotional centers are cleared that a deep sense of meaning and trust emerge. Don’t take my word for it, see if this is true for you.

 

Transformation

Transformation is happening when we are called towards growth and healing. Moving towards a higher consciousness above what we have been operating at. It is not a journey for the faint of heart, it is a path that you are called upon because you know that the alternative is not an option. Though you may feel exhausted, frustrated, and fearful at times, know that you are not alone. Many people are called to this journey of inner healing, and that together as a community we must support each other in these extremely arduous inner endeavors. However, it is journey worth the taking. One that waits for you with grace, compassion, and love. Remember to seek community and the adequate support that you need. Good luck out there yogis!


Local Resources

Yoga: 

Restorative Yoga : 7:15pm Mondays, 7:45pm Thursdays

Yin Yoga: 8pm Wednesdays, 12 pm Thursdays

Local resources for bodywork:

Acupuncture:

Circle Community Acupuncture is a San Francisco Based nonprofit organization that provides public access to affordable acupuncture.

Spas:

Kabuki Springs & Spa is located in the Fillmore neighborhood of SF. It offers Communal Baths every day for $30. Women’s day is on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (for women who identify as female) and Men’s day is on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays (for men who identify as male). Tuesdays are for all genders, including non-binary. It can make for a great couples night!

Home bath remedy:

-2 cups of epsom salt

-essential oils like lavender or chamomile

-Drink plenty of water before and after


Dr. Jennifer Christian

Jennifer Christian, Psy.D.  |  PSY30295  |  @drjenchristian

Dr. Jennifer Christian is a licensed psychologist and Mindfulness and Wellness Coach based in San Francisco, California. She offers psychotherapy and coaching services at her NOPA and Castro offices. She received her doctorate in spiritually oriented clinical psychology from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology at Sofia University in Palo Alto, California.

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