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Physical Aspects of Grief

By Janet M. Schreiber, Ph.D., Director, Grief, Loss and Trauma Counseling, Southwestern College, Santa Fe, New Mexico

As much as I have learned about grief in the sixty years since my mother’s suicide, what I have discovered in the last decade has been the most helpful to me. Before then I knew that grief is messy and sticky and that it surprised me in waves and bursts even many years after the event shattered my world. Now with the help of recent research I understand how the trauma of suicide affected my body and spirit.  What has helped me are practices that have allowed me some mastery over trauma and given me hope.

Trauma occurs when we experience too much, too fast and become overwhelmed. Freud described trauma as, “A breach in the barrier against stimulation.” I have seen signs of a trauma response in almost everyone I know who is a survivor of the suicide of someone to whom they were deeply connected.

When we are traumatized our bodies have an innate neurological response to traumatic stress. This response is hierarchical. Our first defense is to engage or disengage.  If we are not able to engage the threat, our bodies and our nervous system become hyper-aroused and release adrenaline and cortisol to prepare us for fight or flight.  When we are not successful at those strategies, our nervous system can descend into a state of freeze where we appear immobilized but our bodies are still being flooded with stress chemicals. The following diagram shows the biological response to threat:



If someone enters into hyper-arousal, it can be released by:

  1. Successfully using it to attack the predator in a fight response.
  2. Successfully using it to escape from the predator in a flight response.
  3. Successfully discharging it after the freezing response.

If the hyperarousal is not successfully released, the nervous system continues to sense that the danger is present.  This is what occurs in PTSD. 

In our response to what we perceive as traumatic, to the point at which it overwhelms our ability to cope, our biological response creates symptoms that are distressing. Sometimes we feel out of control or even crazy.  All of our essential internal processes become dysregulated, particularly our autonomic nervous system, the enteric nervous system and the polyvagal nervous system. We know that this has occurred when we cannot control our emotions, when we are hyperalert, when we cannot think well, lose things, cannot concentrate and our sleep, digestion and immune function is disturbed so that we more frequently are ill.

Since the response to trauma is biological, we need to heal the nervous system and the body. Fortunately there are many ways to do this. Animals in the wild are able to discharge the effects of trauma by shaking, sighing, yawning and stretching immediately after the threat has past. With humans our culture intervenes and we often do not have the opportunity to discharge.

Discharge is a subtle, natural and automatic process.  Signs include: sweating, vibration, streaming, tingling, goose flesh, REM, warm sensations, flushing of skin tone, twitching, shaking, trembling, micro movements, laughing, sighing, yawning, peristaltic activity, crying. Discharge is a natural process whereby the nervous system resolves trauma.

The most effective methods for mastering trauma are somatic rather than verbal. Somatic Experiencing Practitoners work to heal trauma as do SensoriMotor Psychoterapy Practioners.One of the most tested methods used by psychotherapists is EMDR. Other therapists use a similar technique called Brain Spotting. Information on these techniques can be found on the web at traumahealing.com, EMDRIA.ORG., sensorimotorpsychoterapy.org. Another technique which you can learn at no charge and administer to yourself is on the internet and is called the Emotional Freedom Technique. The website is emofree.com.  Body work, walking, regular exercise, tai chi, dancing and other forms of physical exercise can help our bodies discharge and help restore the nervous system.

When we are able to begin to heal our nervous system from the trauma of suicide we can begin to regain some of our sense of safety, our cognitive function and a restored sense of well being. The more we work to do this the more resilient we become so that we can adapt to life’s further challenges.


Recommended Reading on Trauma

Chitty, J. Polyvagal Theory, The Triune Autonomic Nervous System, and Therapeutic Applications.  www.energyschool.com.

Gershon, Michael D. The Second Brain.  HarperCollins Publishers, 1998.

Herman, Judith L. Trauma and Recovery.  Basic Books, 1992.

Levine, Peter A. Waking the Tiger– Healing Trauma.  North Atlantic Books, 1997.

 Porges, S. W.  Emotion:  An Evolutionary By-Product of the Neural Regulation of the Autonomic Nervous System.  The Integrative Neurobiology of Affiliation. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1997.

Porges, S. W. Polyvagal Theory: Three Neural Circuits Regulate Behavioral Reactivity. Psychological Science Agenda. University of Maryland, 2002.

Rothschild, Babette. The Body Remembers– The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment.  W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Rothschild, Babette. Help for the Helper.  W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Scaer, Robert. The Body Bears the Burden. Haworth Medical Press, 2001.

Shapiro, Francine. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing:  Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures. Guilford Press, 1995.

 Van der Kolk, Bessel, et al.  Traumatic Stress– The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society.  Guilford Press, 1996.


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