I’ve got a widower brother who lost his wife almost two years ago. He has a new relationship, a growing family, a busy life, and good friends. But when you look at him, you can see that much sadness is being carried, right on his shoulders, from the weight of the grief remains.
Observational studies have categorized the physiological impact of sadness: “Sadness is typically characterized by raised inner eyebrows, lowered corners of the mouth, reduced walking speed, and a slumped posture”. You may be noticing these physical indicators in others, or see these in yourself, as you journey through the grieving process.
This brother reached out to me recently on how heavy the loss was on him still, and with the passing only a short time ago, this is not unexpected. He shared that any reminder, whether it be a song, a place they used to walk, any medical facility, was sure to put him into a funk. He wasn’t happy with his progress in the healing process, feeling like he was stuck in a ditch. Heck, many of us have had this low-down feeling at times through our own journey, whether that is right now for you, right after the loss, or persists for years.
So my friend looks for distractions to take his mind off of the feelings, but this only acts as a temporary patch, as the grief rinse returns and repeats. He desires a permanent fix, but expressed how hard it was for him to find a way out and up.
With my encouragement, he read through our Growth through Grief tools section, and loved a lot of what was suggested, but he was admittedly overwhelmed by the long list of potential to-dos and improvements to consider. With this list having been compiled from my own lessons, after my almost five years of reconciling the loss and creating Tom 2.0, that wasn’t unexpected. Wanting to personally help him, I was challenged to find some advice, to get my friend on his way to better healing.
So how do you break out of these feelings of sadness, and not be overwhelmed by the multitude of potential improvements and longer than anticipated journey? To come up with at least a little advice for him, I thought back to the beginning of my own healing process. What were the first couple of things I did to try and get out of my own funk?
You Can’t Crawl Back Into A Made Bed
The day after my wife passed away, I wanted to crawl back into my bed and hide away from the world. Who wouldn’t.
I resisted this urge, and instead did something differently. After my normal morning shave and shower, instead of getting back under the covers, I took the time and made the bed. This task was not something I had done in years., relying on my late wife Judy to make the bed each day, or through the illness, just dealing with my resting place unmade. Without her here, it wasn’t going to make itself, and so this was on me if it was ever going to get made again.
And so making my bed gave me intention – let me do something that she took care of, to honor her and appreciate what she had done for me in the past. And certainly, my newly made bed made it difficult to jump back in and hide.
I was reminded of a Navy SEALs advice on how making your bed can change your life. Of all the things a SEAL has been trained on to potentially pass along regarding survival and success, “making your bed” was not something I would expect as his primary advice.
In a commencement speech at the University of Texas, Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Seal William H. McCraven, author of the book “Make Your Bed: Little Things Can Change Your Life…and Maybe the World,” this was exactly what he told the students, as one of the most powerful lessons he learned during his time as a Navy SEAL. “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day,″ he said. “It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task, and another, and another. And by the end of the day that one task-completed will have turned into many tasks completed.”
Indeed, the advice is echoed by several other experts. The folks at “Very Well Mind” indicate that some of the benefits of making your bed include:
- A feeling of accomplishment
- A sense of calm
- Better sleep
- Enhanced organization
- Improved focus
- Stress reduction
Clearly, achieving an accomplishment in the face of loss, no matter how small is important. Forward momentum in one area, to filter into the other areas of your life where forward is not what you are feeling or thinking. Calmness, relaxation and stress reduction to help first thing in the morning calm the Amygdala.
All this could benefit my friend and get him on his way to overcoming his triggers and building positive improvement momentum.
Making my bed was the start, and was the first piece of advice I passed on to my buddy. As I thought some more, I accompanied my bed-making with two other “doing different” initiatives.
Making Lemon Water from Lemons
A fitness trainer friend of mine shared one of her secrets to a healthier life, and one that she not only did religiously, but recommended to all her clients. Before any morning coffee or breakfast, she felt it was essential to get your metabolism going with some lemon water.
So after my bed was made, I took step 2. I cut up a whole lemon, squeezed out the fresh juice into a large glass, put the lemon wedges in there too, filled it with water, shook it up to mix and drank away.
In certain Asian cultures, the water used is heated, which is supposed to really help amplify the benefits, but since I’m here in Florida and it’s normally hotter than heck, I prefer my lemon water out of the tap cold (no ice).
So, what do the experts say when it comes to lemon water, the few key benefits of lemon water first thing each morning:
- Digestion Boost – Lemons are acidic, and setting up your stomach first thing in the morning with an acidic environment can help break down any food you might ingest afterwards. And as we age, it may be a helpful supplement to declining stomach acid levels.
- Hydration Jumpstart – I know I don’t drink enough water each day, so starting off with a big glass gets at least a decent baseline established.
- Oxidation Prevention – When we are under stress, the impacts can occur at the most fundamental part of our body, as our cells react and become damaged. Oxidation is the culprit, yes the same mechanism that causes metal to rust. So we are rusting away, and the stresses of loss and grief are like throwing salt into the rusting process. Lemons contain phytonutrients, which protect your body against disease and have powerful antioxidant properties, which prevent oxidation and the resultant cell damage.
- Vitamin C Immunity Boost– A freshly squeezed whole lemon (which is what I recommend leveraging) only has a few calories, but can deliver about a third of your daily vitamin C needs. This can help boost a compromised immune system, from the stress and likely lack of sleep, help prevent cell damage and boost cell repair capabilities.
- Potassium Boost – Lemons, as with other fruits and vegetables, can help provide you with potassium, which your body needs for proper nerve-muscle communication, transporting nutrients and waste and blood pressure regulation. A body under the stress of grief can be compromised in all these areas, so starting off with a potassium boost can help improve your nervous system, muscular capabilities and cardio-vascular health.
- Weight-loss friendly – My trainer claims that the lemon-water boosted metabolism, and I was skeptical. But wanting to try a couple of things differently and knew, I gave it a shot, and after a while I could feel the difference. Now some 60 lbs lighter, with great muscle tone compared to how I was when my wife passed away, the proof is in the lemon-water (at least partly).
One Step Away
I was lucky to have a one year old shitzu poodle (shitty-poo) named Ruby to keep me company through the loss, and especially get me going every morning. The morning after the loss, Ruby was missing Judy, as she left behind her 24 x 7 job of guarding and protecting her. Not unlike all of us, you could tell she was out of sorts and perhaps in as much a funk as I was. So there she was begging at the door, and we walked it out together.
I popped on a helpful growth-mindset podcast, got out in a park next to my house and got myself moving. Almost a puppy, she was able to walk at a good pace, and this was important … not just to walk, but do so at a pace that got my heart rate up a little and produced some sweat. And the podcasts were so important in the process. To get myself moving forward, out in nature and sweat a little was important, but hearing through the ear buds how others faced their own struggles and suffering, and how they maintained a positive mindset to overcome and triumph – this was essential.
Those who work with trauma victims know the importance of forward movement in calming the Amygdala and the PTSD triggers, while providing positive visual cues of forward momentum to get your mind oriented similarly. In fact, therapists whose patients are confined to the counseling room use EMDR therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, rapid horizontal eye movements that simulate forward movement – walking or running forwards.
These eye movements, as with forward movement of walking and running, help to calm your Amygdala and the fight, flight, freeze triggers and responses, allowing your thinking brain, your neocortex, to take control. What better way for me to start reprogramming to a growth mindset than using walking a a way to calm the emotional brain, enabling me to be “in” the podcast content with my thinking brain.
Besides the forward movement benefits, the exercise of walking helps restore much needed balance. A body under stress is out of balance, and exercise can help to naturally restore this balance, helping to burn off excess adrenaline, which is likely being produced from your grief and stress and not because your body needs it to fight / flight. As well, exercise helps to release some “feel good” endorphins, which can significantly change your mood near term and fight depression long term.
According to WebMD, Endorphins can trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as “euphoric.” That feeling, known as a “runner’s high,” can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life. Regular exercise like my initial foray into walking, has been proven to:
- Reduce stress
- Ward off anxiety and feelings of depression
- Boost self-esteem
- Improve sleep
All of these improvements are vital to helping your mind overcome the initial sadness, preventing depression from taking root, as well as establishing and reinforcing a positive growth mindset. And a side benefit, as your body begins to feel better and you peel off a little weight, the initiative becomes self-reinforcing.
Making These Changes Stick: Forming Good Habits
Taking these initial first steps was important, but needed to be maintained in practice. This is where “forming habits” comes into play, turning the conscious action and effort of making my bed, preparing the lemon water and taking that intentions-walk into an automatic process, one that I would miss if it wasn’t part of my day.
According to the author of the bestseller Atomic Habits, James Clear, on average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. This counters earlier beliefs that it only takes 21 days, indicating that habits are harder to form, and that you do need to think about the small steps and putting in the work, perhaps over a longer period of time than anticipated, in order to reap the good habit rewards.
A little daunting when you think about it, but Mr. Clear has some great advice we should all take to heart, and one we will definitely be exploring in more depth in later articles: “At the end of the day, how long it takes to form a particular habit doesn’t really matter that much. Whether it takes 50 days or 500 days, you have to put in the work either way. The only way to get to Day 500 is to start with Day 1. So forget about the number and focus on doing the work.”