Grief as a Normal and Healthy Process

Western culture impresses upon many of us the need to exert personal control over the process of dying and grief in general, that is to say we must do everything we can to prevent the inevitable. In many cases, this futile individual effort continues even after a loved one has died. Meanwhile surviving family members and the structure that endures remain relatively unexamined or underappreciated. In the United States, the progression toward death most often occurs in hospitals where family members, doctors, nurses, social workers and/or other hospital staff become closely involved with family members in their charge of caring for their patient. Grief exposes us to deep attachments and reminds us of our innate social interdependence. Prevailing culture may be seen as turning a blind eye to the bereaved and, when people are in a period of great need they may be left to process their loss individually despite the collective loss (Shapiro, 1994).

The shared trauma of familial death exposes families and their ingredient structures to the same objective reality which immediately and profoundly informs the individual’s subjective reality. Families accustomed to open communication and sharing may move to narrower or more closed communication styles in an attempt to protect individual family members from debilitating emotional pain. The risks here are numerous; repression of sadness and the implication that family and friends are unable or unwilling to collectively grieve. More plainly, it is the strong desire to retreat from grief that implores us, if unconsciously, to essentially lean into the pain, to sit with and examine both objectively and subjectively what we have lost. Our larger goal is to integrate the loss into our lives.

Bereavement requires a thorough and sometimes painful exploration of who and what has been lost and what remains, including resources and stressors that may be relinquished and those which are created and built upon (Stroebe, Schut, & Stroebe, 2005). The range of loss may include health, livelihood, security and more that may move through families, businesses, communities, and even cultures for months or years (Neimeyer, 2002; Lin, Sandler, Ayers, Wolchik & Luecken, 2004).

Loss of intimate partners, family members or close friends may erode, on a foundational level, a person’s self-definition since no one any longer holds the unique relational stance toward them needed to call forth and validate the unique cache of shared memories that had sustained a person’s sense of who they had been (Neimeyer, 2002; Cait, 2005). Life crises and traumatic events, while nearly always involving painful emotions, may serve as an impetus for personal growth (Schaefer & Moos, 2001). It is not unusual for individuals and families to emerge from life crises with improved personal and social resources and new coping skills. The difficult truth is that any form of grief is inherently sad, difficult, and exhausting. While there may be any number of self-help books available, there is no ‘right way to grieve’, nor is there a timeline. Whether or not we believe in Kubler-Ross’s model of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, we each navigate our grief at our own pace.

Shapiro, E., (1994). Grief as a Family Process. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Stroebe, M., Schut, H., & Stroebe, W. (2005). Attachment in Coping with Bereavement: A Theoretical Integration. Review of General Psychology, 9(1), 48-66

Neimeyer, R.A. (2002). Traumatic Loss and the Reconstruction of Meaning, Journal of Palliative Medicine 5(6), 935-942.

Schaefer, J.A. & Moos, R.H. (2001). Bereavement Experiences and Personal Growth. In Stroebe, Hansson, Stroebe, & Schut (Eds), Handbook of Bereavement Research: Consequences, Coping, and Care, (pp. 145-167). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Avoiding Exercise Addiction: The Key is Awareness and Balance

Okay, the holidays are over and it is the beginning of a New Year and you want to work on the new you. You have created an idea of how you want to move forward with your exercise plan and have bought a membership to your local gym or fitness studio. What could possibly go wrong? Well, a lot could go wrong if you are not aware of the imbalances in your life.

Many people start off by having the goal of attaining a certain fitness milestone and make the commitment to themselves that they will work hard at keeping that resolution. The imbalance occurs when the commitment to exercise crosses the line from the healthy use of exercise to dependence, thus leading to addictive behavior. Some people might respond, “exercise isn’t a drug so how can it be considered an addiction?” To answer that question, it’s important to understand a healthy and unhealthy perspective of change.

With a healthy perspective, a person may choose change because they feel that the equilibrium is off in their life. This desire for change could occur when either their work-life balance has shifted to the work side and life has taken the back seat; or, work is suffering from other pursuits, but balance hasn’t been attained. With an unhealthy perspective, a person chooses change because they fall victim to their internal voice stating that they shouldor must exercise in order to be functional. The internal voice is the key to understanding what you believe about yourself, the world, and your future.  When that voice is punitive and judgmental, an unhealthy perspective can begin to form.

When a person tells themselves that they must work out for whatever time or amount they have chosen, it is important to be flexible in their goals and plans. Below are some examples of when exercise could have crossed the line from a goal oriented health tool to a compulsive addiction:

  1. When there is no flexibility in your schedule; for instance, if something causes you to miss your lunch time run and you beat yourself up inside for missing it.
  2. You experience a loss of interest in doing anything other than exercising, such as working out three times a day while avoiding other aspects of who you are.
  3. You experience depression or anxiety for missing a workout. In more severe cases, a person with an exercise addiction may feel intense sadness, inappropriate guilt, difficulty concentrating, intense fear or even panic attacks if they are not working out.
  4. You experience a compulsion to work out even if you are injured or sick and could benefit greatly from resting your body.
  5. Multiple people have commented on your excessive exercise habits and state that they notice what they deem as excessive exercise behaviors.
  6. Exercising has got in the way of relationships, your job, sleep, or your health. An example of this is when a person arrives late for work, or calls in sick when they really plan on going to the gym multiple times that day; or if a person who suffers from exercise addiction avoids their family and friends altogether, yet has plenty of time and motivation for exercise.

Examining your internal voice and understanding your motives starts with awareness. Once you are aware of the imbalance, you then have a choice. When you are not aware of the imbalances in your life, you may fall victim to old patterns and negative thoughts that may lead to addictions and compulsions.

Tips for a healthy, balanced exercise regimen:

  • When starting a new exercise regimen, it is of course important to consult your physician to make sure that you are in good health so that you can physically do exercises and that you are not putting your body at risk if there are any pre-existing conditions.
  • Contact a registered dietitian who can educate and coach you on the most beneficial meal plan for what you are hoping to do.
  • Write a list of goals regarding your vision with exercise. Examine why you want change. Be honest in your assessment of what you can do and the timeline you need to accomplish it. What happens when you have to reschedule your workout? Will you be flexible and compassionate with yourself or will your negative thoughts flow with self-defeat? For example, if you tell yourself that you are worthless or won’t attain your goal because you have to reschedule, you may be out of balance.
  • If you have a propensity to “over do it” in situations, now is the time to establish clear guidelines and identify warning signs that might come up and decide how you will mitigate them.

Avoiding exercise addiction is about balance, awareness and compassion. Without those components, you could possibly play into patterns that lead to self-destructive and judgmental thoughts and then the behaviors may follow. Remember that you decided to start the workout regimen in the first place so that you may have a more balanced life.