Healing Grief With Exercise

While grief is a universal human experience, most people have no idea how to grieve well. For better or worse, it is a skill that is usually learned by watching other people go through it. Grief is not a linear event. It’s not just a fading of pain, it’s more like a messy cycle through the five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The goal is to progress and avoid getting stuck in any one stage. However, revisiting previous stages of grief is completely normal. Unfortunately, even uncomplicated grief is a type of long-term stress and can trigger higher than normal levels of the stress hormone cortisol which causes insomnia, depression, heart disease, and decreased digestive and immune function. While there is no way to make grief move faster or go away, here’s how to make the best of every stage.

Denial: The denial stage is a type of short-circuiting of understanding. For a time, it’s impossible to imagine what has happened. I rarely recommend skipping your workout, but when you’ve just been hit with a loss that you can’t wrap your mind around, then you shouldn’t be exercising. You’re very likely to hurt yourself as grief makes us clumsy. The other risk of exercising while in Denial is that you run the risk of transitioning to another stage of grief when you’re not in a safe place to do so. This can be dangerous and embarrassing.

Anger: This is a great time to start exercising again, but care must be taken to ensure that the exercise is not self-harmful or over the top. Like in denial, there is a greater than average possibility of hurting yourself with exercise. The reason is because you will not be able to purge all the anger you have without hurting yourself, yet the energy to try feels limitless. The goal of exercise in the Anger stage is to take the edge off so that your mind has the opportunity to merge into the next stage.

Bargaining: Grief is never pretty to watch, but the Bargaining stage is probably the stage that most often makes outsiders shake their heads in confusion and pity. This phase of grieving causes what I describe as “pressured thoughts.” It leaves people racking their brain to find a solution to the “problem” of having lost someone. They are frantically looking for an escape hatch from their pain when the only way is through. In this highly energetic stage, exercise is enormously beneficial as it has the potential to quiet the mind and provide relief as the process continues.

Depression: This is what most people think of when they think of grief. Physical movements are subdued, energy is non-existent, appetite is affected, immune system bottoms out and the person is frequently tearful. This is a stage where people can develop new, and often undesirable, perspectives and habits. When exercising through depression, it is absolutely essential to respect the body and mind to avoid bullying yourself. That said, exercise can provide relief from the heavy, dull ache. Just 10 minutes of cardio can improve a person’s mood. Notice however, that the gap between Depression and Acceptance is the widest of any of the stages. Many people find themselves revisiting the previous stages several times before arriving at the last stage of grief.

Acceptance: This is the stage of grief when you notice the sun touching your face and it feels okay to smile. Though the loss will always be there, you know you can go on. Consistent exercise is a beautiful reminder of this. Day after day, one foot in front of the other, one breath at a time, you are reminding yourself that you are strong and the world is full of beautiful moments.

Tips to start exercising:

  1. Consistency is better than intensity. An easy 10 minutes that you do daily will have more physical and emotional benefit than an occasional high intensity sweat session. Your body is designed to do random, intense exercise — but only in a crisis. Part of the crisis response is to release the stress hormone cortisol, which defeats the purpose of any self-care activity.
  2. Choose something you can do anywhere. While the gym has great machines, it’s not necessary and definitely not useful if the effort to get there feels Herculean. Simplify by choosing exercise you can do from home with minimal equipment.
  3. While yoga has tremendous restorative benefits, I recommend including cardio activities like walking, running, biking, and swimming to get the best effect while you’re grieving.
  4. Respect your energy levels: there will be days when you’re filled with energy and days that your energy is zapped. This is normal, especially when you’re grieving. Take each day as it comes and don’t “should” on yourself.
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