Grief includes deep and intense sorrow, distress, anguish, and suffering which results from the loss of a significant loved one due to death or from the loss of a significant relationship or career. Grief is commonly viewed as a feeling or process which should “end” or “be put behind you.” However, a traumatic loss literally changes your brain chemistry and can culminate into Major Depressive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, just to name a few possibilities. If you are grieving, you are at risk for developing a psychological disorder if you do any of the following: (1) refuse to talk about the loss, (2) blame yourself for not getting beyond this loss in a specific time frame, (3) ruminate about the unfairness of this loss, and (4) live in the past tense.
While the grieving process is absolutely the most painful experience which a human endures in life, I firmly and wholeheartedly believe that it is your perception of grief which is the real problem. Whether you explain your loss from a religious, spiritual, universal, or merely random viewpoint, the priority is to figure out how to incorporate this loss into your changed identity with a new narrative, or personal story. How you create this narrative completely determines how well you will manage this loss over the remainder of your lifetime. As I bluntly tell those who are suffering through a death or other severe loss, “Grief never ends. It will come and go in waves for the rest of your life. If you can learn to accept this, you will feel much less threatened by the grief.”
Grief Therapy Techniques
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy that involves learning to identify negative thought patterns so that you can work to change them. This treatment is based on the fundamental premise that, by learning to cope with your negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, you can relieve symptoms and live a healthier, more productive life day to day. If you are looking for an action-oriented approach, you can search for therapists who are specifically trained in CBT. CBT has been proven in numerous clinical studies to result in a substantial improvement in quality of life among grief survivors. CBT for grief works by helping you become aware of your negative thought and emotional patterns. These patterns can lead to behaviors which make it difficult to process grief. During CBT sessions, a therapist might ask you to clarify your specific thoughts and feelings in terms of your grief. Identifying these negative thought and emotional patterns can help you to understand how they influence your behaviors. Some common CBT grief therapy techniques which are used to promote healing are:
- Cognitive Reframing or Restructuring, which helps you to become aware of negative thought patterns or distortions and then begin to take healthy steps to change them
- Targeting Behaviors, which involves addressing unhelpful or harmful behaviors or habits and replacing them with more helpful ones
- Developing a New Narrative, which helps you to create a new, healthier internal dialogue about your loss. You gradually learn how to revise your negative thoughts and feelings, rather than dwelling on them.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) helps you to accept negative emotions and situations and then to develop healthier coping patterns. ACT guides you through a process of accepting your emotions and the related circumstances, rather than trying to escape them, experiencing guilt about them, or avoiding them altogether. This therapeutic approach teaches you how to utilize your psychological flexibility, which is the ability to be very present and “staying in the moment” in your life. ACT also uses mindfulness techniques to help you process grief and to accept your loss. Furthermore, this type of therapy can be used for prolonged or complicated grief which lasts for a year or more after a loss occurs. ACT helps you reprocess a loss emotionally. It also helps you begin to process any emotions you might have been avoiding dealing with. Some common ACT grief therapy techniques which are aimed at achieving acceptance and healing are:
- Acceptance of negative feelings, memories, and faulty perceptions of current life events
- Distancing from the negative feelings, in order to understand them in a healthier manner
- Focusing on and appreciating the present
- Visualizing yourself experiencing different situations and circumstances in a more empowered and stable manner
- Identifying your core values
Traumatic Grief Therapy (TGT) allows you to process a sudden trauma and the related grief, such as losing a loved one unexpectedly, by closely examining your trauma-related feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. TGT is an intense therapeutic technique, which can certainly cause disturbing flashbacks, anxiety, and periodic setbacks in the healing process. However, the future payoffs can be life-changing!
Complicated Grief Therapy (CGT) involves learning to address the symptoms of complicated grief, which results in feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and prolonged, intense sadness. CGT has had effective results in treating Major Depressive Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as they relate to the complicated grief process. Because complicated grief can cause you to fixate on the person who you have lost or on the circumstances surrounding the death of your loved one, CGT often includes Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
Reframing the Meaning of Grief and Loss
I am a strong advocate of using mantras to manage disturbing thoughts and to increase pleasurable brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine. These mantras must have deep personal meaning, which is derived from a lengthy and intense introspection process. The word, “mantra,” has become so mainstream and is often over-simplified as “a positive affirmation.” On the contrary, your individualized mantras require detailed and purposeful words and phrases.
For instance, you can develop coping skills for your GRIEF by using the following word mantras as your springboards: Gratitude, Rebirth, Insight, Exploration, and Freedom over your pain. Furthermore, you can develop coping skills for your sense of LOSS by using the following word mantras as your springboards: Learning, Open-mindedness, Strength, and Spiritual awakening. Of course, this is no easy task to utilize these mantra words and to achieve the desired outcomes. However, you CAN gradually perceive grief and loss as part of the life cycle, as a painful but strengthening learning process, and as an opportunity to let go of anger and of what you cannot change. By focusing on an appreciation of the love which you experienced before the grief and loss process, you can move toward accepting the resulting negative memories and emotions. You can then learn how to distance yourself from them by understanding their roots and by applying more effective coping behaviors. The outcome is living in the present, observing when disturbing memories knock you off balance, adhering to your core life values and beliefs, and applying your resilience toward any challenging circumstance which you may encounter in this life.
Written by New Age Psychiatry’s Compassionate Therapist: Rebecca Wang-Harris PhD
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