Have you ever wondered how to decompress after experiencing a grief trigger?
First things first. Let me define what ‘grief trigger’ means.
A grief trigger is basically anything that sparks memories of a loss.
It’s not uncommon to think of birthdays, anniversaries, the holiday season, or special events as triggers for grief. What may not be as obvious, however, are the seemingly insignificant situations in life that can also trigger a grief response.
For instance, I’m reminded of a Sunday drive in my car several months ago. As I approached a stop sign, I noticed the intersection of the street I was driving on and the cross street, Patricia Lane. My mom’s name is Patricia. Yikes! Instantly, tears welled up in my eyes and for a few minutes, I had to pull over and weep as memories of her came flooding to my mind. Most recently on a walk through my neighborhood, I observed a black Harley Davidson motorcycle making its way towards me. I immediately felt sadness rush in as I recalled times my dad enjoyed traveling around the country on his bike. Grief triggers.
The tricky thing about grief triggers is their ability to create almost instantaneous feelings of longing, sadness, guilt, regret, or loneliness. Further, some grieving persons experience waves of anxiety as memories come forward. And unfortunately, due to the unpredictable nature of the not-so-obvious triggers, it’s nearly impossible to avoid them all.
That’s where decompression comes in.
Let’s talk about how to decompress after experiencing a grief trigger.
Please know there are a host of strategies you could use to settle yourself, and it’s important to take stock of ones that are most helpful for you. Here, I’ll share five practices that have helped me manage my own triggers.
First, acknowledge how you’re feeling in the moment. When I experienced the first grief trigger following my mom’s death in 2012, my instinct was to ignore it. I felt embarrassed that something relatively minor — one of her favorite Whitney Houston songs at the time — emotionally gutted me. What I came to realize, however, is the importance of acknowledging how I’m feeling when the triggers overwhelm me. As elementary as this may seem, a simple acknowledgment of what’s happening to you in the moment is essential. It allows you to face your response to grief head on and access tools to help you get through the moment.
Second, take the time you need to settle yourself. After you’ve named the reality of the trigger, give yourself permission to reset. This may mean pulling over, as was the case in my car, or applying cold water to your face to come back to yourself. In addition, you might physically leave a situation that sparks challenging thoughts or feelings. I know this might be awkward, particularly if you’re triggered in a social setting. However, I’d argue that taking time to focus on what you need will help you far better than trying to muscle your way through the situation. Trust me. I’ve been there!
Third, practice taking slow, deep breaths to help reset your nervous system. Without realizing it, grief triggers can spark a chain reaction within our bodies, resulting in increased heart rate, challenges maintaining a calm breath, or a full-blown panic attack. Slow, diaphragmatic breathing can help lower your pulse and heart rate, thereby giving you a space to re-ground yourself. I enjoy using a specific breathing technique sometimes referred to as ‘box breathing.’ Believe it or not, this practice is backed by science. You can learn more about it here: https://www.healthline.com/health/box-breathing#slowly-exhale.
Fourth, seek out support as needed. When waves of grief triggers came following my mom’s death, I initially kept it all to myself. Unfortunately, I experienced the consequences of going it alone. For example, I began to feel more alone and isolated from others and for a season, wrestled with a barrage of negative thinking. Throughout the first year after she died, however, I began to lean on folks around me. Little by little, I realized I wasn’t the only person who experienced grief triggers. That alone made me feel better. And ‘normal.’
Fifth, be OK with rest. The triggers that occur on the heels of loss can sweep you off your feet. This first year’s worth of memories of time spent with my dad took a toll on my physical body. For instance, I wrestled with extreme bouts of fatigue and baffling headaches. Different from my experience of grief following my mom’s death, more recent triggers have felt even more subtle and consecutive. Just as I regain my footing from one trigger, another seems to present itself. As a result, I’ve needed to tend much more to my body and rest. Know it’s perfectly normal to slow down and focus on what’s best for you in the moment.
Friend, I challenge you to consider how you might decompress after experiencing a grief trigger.
While you can’t control the timing of the triggers, you can take small steps to manage their aftermath.
Learn more about managing your lifestyle, love, leadership, and loyalties to God, self, and others by clicking here: https://mekelharrisphd.com/.
5 Ways to Unwind RIGHT NOW!
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Dr. Mekel Harris is a Memphis-based licensed psychologist who loves helping other perfectly imperfect folks navigate life's challenges in order to grow in lifestyle, love, leadership, and loyalties to God, self, and others.
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