If you’re one of the unfortunate ones to have lost a loved one, you will know how grief impacts on your emotions. But you may not be so aware of how grief can weaken your body. Unresolved grief can cause chronic issues; it literally ‘gets inside the body’. This, combined with the fact that we live in a society that is still unwilling to talk frankly about bereavement and loss, means that we are often walking on a long and lonely road, with chronic physical symptoms that time does not heal or subdue.
Impact on the Heart
The Old English word for grief, heartsarnes, means soreness of the heart. It is not surprising then that chest symptoms are a recurring theme following bereavement or loss. Many experience heart pain or heart palpitations. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, Broken Heart Syndrome, mimics an actual heart attack. The British Heart Foundation also recognises that grief can weaken the heart muscle and one of the heart's chambers changes its shape. Grief has also been found to increase blood pressure and blood clots.
Impact on the gut
Grief can exacerbate appetite loss—probably because it impacts on the pleasure taken in eating food. Some people are so impacted by grief that they no longer feel hungry. Others comfort eat to fill the gaping void that has opened up in their life. And in addition, regardless of whether you’re eating more or less, the actual process of digestion can be compromised.
Other physical symptoms may include overwhelming tiredness and exhaustion, restlessness, general aches and pains, anxiety attacks, difficulty breathing, insomnia and fears. The loss of someone close can also leave people more vulnerable to infection.
Memories of trauma and loss are stored in the connective tissue of the body, which is why it is not a surprise to craniosacral therapists that grief involves a huge physical effort for people - it is not simply done or felt only in the mind. It has a physical impact. For instance, I will feel grief in a client in one or more of the following ways:
• The sensation of a heavy weight sitting on their whole heart and lung area
• Feeling of trapped energy in the throat (where unshed tears are sitting)
• The respiratory diaphragm will feel dense and ‘stuck’
• The client’s ‘rest and digest’ system can feel non-existent
• The flow of the ‘breath of life’ will be severely compromised
I know for myself, I was shocked at the impact on my body that losing my mum had. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, my heart felt like it had been hit by a truck and my umbilical area felt like it had had something torn from it... It was a huge process of recovery on a physical, emotional and spiritual level.
We need to acknowledge grief more in our society. We need to take it from its taboo status. We need to provide the support on the physical and on the emotional levels to help each other through. We need to raise awareness of the lesser known physical impacts. We need to talk about the body therapies that help the body to release and recover physically. But most importantly, we need to acknowledge the impact of grief – to witness and be with it, not to try and fix it or make it go away. Some losses never go away – but the physical impact of them can be cleared so that we can get on with following the flow of the great river of life to the best of our ability.
What intrigues me is the physiological impact of overwhelm and the link to the waters as I feel this could hold the keys that will help us to overcome overwhelm. From a craniosacral viewpoint, we work with the tides within – and overwhelm can suppress the healthy movement within this craniosacral system.
The symptoms of overwhelm
If you wake up in the morning dreading the things you need to do and feeling anxious, chances are you’re in overwhelm mode before you even start your day. Overwhelm may show up in our lives through intense irritability or melancholy, significant anxiety and panic, stress over things that may be of little significance, or an inability to distinguish thoughts from reality. Some people will withdraw and isolate themselves. The key symptom is that all tasks are thwarted by intense emotion (the world of the waters).
Other symptoms may include changes to appetite, sleeping habits or a compromised immune system: catching colds more easily, developing asthma/eczema and digestive issues.
Overwhelm can start a spiral of feeling out of control, confused, and unable to make decisions. Add to this the increasing dependence on food, cigarettes, alcohol and/or drugs and it becomes a very slippery slope....
What Causes Overwhelm?
It is not at all uncommon for people to feel overwhelmed at some point in their lives. In fact there is even a list of the life events that are most likely to cause it! According to the widely validated Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, these are the top ten stressful life events for adults that can contribute to illness:
What to DO About Overwhelm?
Here are three things that may begin to help you to cope with overwhelm:
Be gentle with yourself. Admit and accept that you are overwhelmed. We all experience this at some time in our lives. The less we beat ourselves up about being overwhelmed, and the more accepting of ourselves we are, has a huge impact on how we can pull ourselves out of the situation.
2: Be realistic
It is a fast paced life we live in and multi-tasking and being available 24/7 are becoming the way of the world. So get real – everything can’t possibly get done but what are the biggest priorities? Try and make some time for stillness, switch the smart phone off, spend some time in nature: this is how we get perspective on the important things.
3: Scan addictions
Are there any substances or habits that might be contributing to a state of overwhelm? Take some time to review the crutch you unconsciously go for – it could be sugar, tobacco, drugs, alcohol...
More ideas to help with overwhelm
Regular exercise really does lift your mood. It also serves as a distraction from worries, and gives you some space to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts.
We are hugely relational beings: the simple act of talking face-to-face with another human works wonders! From a physiological point of view, it can trigger hormones that relieve stress when you're feeling agitated or insecure, helping to calm and soothe your nervous system.
Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the polar opposite of the stress response. Craniosacral therapy can also assist with this.
I want to finish this blog by saying that it is not okay to live our lives without pausing for breath, living for holidays and weekends. The world seems to accept that overwhelm is a necessary evil of modern day living. It is not. We do have a choice. Invest in yourself and make that choice today.
Depression: a mental condition characterized by feelings of severe despondency and dejection, typically also with feelings of inadequacy and guilt, often accompanied by lack of energy and disturbance of appetite and sleep.
In mainstream medicine there are 6 types of depression: clinical, chronic, atypical, manic, seasonal, and psychotic. Antidepressants are often the first treatment option prescribed yet they only effective in around one third of cases, and partially effective in another third. The other third of cases get no benefit at all.
From a complementary therapist’s point of view, having seen many cases of depression come through my clinic door, there can never be a “one size fits all” treatment that cures depression. Every person is unique and what works for one person might not work for another. Inspired by a conversation with an acupuncture colleague of mine a few days ago, I thought it’d be useful to have another kind of diagnosis window for depression: one offered by the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water).
There is so much good information on the web (I love google), but below I’ve summarised what I have found in my research as ways to help yourself at home if you are struggling with depression. Please note that this information is not meant to take the place of valued guidance from your healthcare practitioner. It is merely additional resources to supplement you in your journey of depression.
So what type of depressed are you and what can you do to help yourself, in addition to any current support you are getting?
Many thanks to Sarah Attwell-Griffiths for inspiring me to research this! You can find out more about her at Corinium Acupuncture.
“Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”
The human brain is a social organ that is shaped by experience; it's a profoundly relational part of our body, especially in the formative years. So childhood trauma literally shapes your brain for the rest of your life...
Childhood abuse has been shown to specifically effect
i) Ventral pre frontal cortex - the part of the brain that allows you to observe yourself, where you know what's going on inside of you. In effect, it is our watchtower.
ii) Orbitel pre frontal cortex - the part of your brain that helps you not to become impulsive.
iii) Amygdala- the smoke detector of the brain that tells you what is dangerous and what is safe. It knows nothing about reasoning or cognitive functions. It deals with feelings and emotions.
iv) Dorsolateral cortex – the part of the brain that gives you the capacity to see yourself over time, combining past with the future.
v) Precuneus - the part of your brain that worries about yourself.
vi) Anterior cingulate - the part of the brain that filters out irrelevant information.
In a healthy developmental environment, your brain gets to feel a sense of pleasure, engagement, and exploration. Your brain opens up to learn, to see things, to accumulate information, to form friendships. If as a child you are frightened and unwanted, your brain specialises in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.
Trauma is thus a kinesthetic experience; it is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. It as an illness of not being alive in the present as this imprint has ongoing consequences for how we manage to survive in the present. Trauma creates chaos in our brain.
Once traumatised a person perceives the world differently so the question to therapists is how do we assist our clients to heal their nervous systems so that their perception of danger or safety is more accurate?
It is very interesting that mindfulness increases activation of the medial prefrontal cortex and decreases activation of structures like the amygdala that trigger our emotional responses. This increases our control over the emotional brain and is one way we can start to utilise the neuro-plasticity of our brains for our benefit.
There is still much being learnt in this area, but to me anything that makes a person feel safer in the present moment (breath, body work, nature, stillness) will go a long way towards helping to antidote the physiological impacts of childhood trauma on our brains. We can rewire, it is just going to take time, patience and space...