Healthy habits tend to disappear when intense stress arrives. We stop exercising, we sleep less, we eat poorly, we stop making health care appointments. Non-grief-related stressors tend to come in bursts that dissipate after a time, allowing us to resume our regular healthy living habits. Grief, on the other hand, brings long-term stress that includes short, intense, rapid-fire bursts of stress that last an indefinite amount of time. Respites, if any, are momentary interruptions in a life now defined by stress.
In these conditions, maintaining healthy habits can sound like wishful thinking. Grievers may have lost a significant source of comfort, which creates a gap that needs to be filled. It can be tempting to fill that gap with calorie-heavy food, alcohol, illicit substances, sex, and other unhealthy distractions.
The first two years after my mother’s death I lived in constant stress with fleeting breaks every few months. I felt like I was drowning most of the time and treading water on the good days. Maintaining healthy habits flew off my to do list. The best thing I did for my health was to make and keep doctor’s appointments. The worst thing I did was sleep three to six hours a night and drink caffeine to compensate for my lack of energy. After a week of excessive coffee consumption, little food, and almost no water, I passed out at a concert from severe dehydration.
Be vigilant about maintaining healthy habits may not sound like giving yourself a break. The more you can commit yourself to maintaining healthy habits, the more coping options you have at your disposal when stress increases. Healthy habits keep your body, mind, and spirit functioning at optimal levels. Give your body a break from the onslaught of stress; nourish yourself so your body can support you during difficult times.
Consider the following ways to keep healthy habits:
- Recruit assistance. If you have trouble maintaining a healthy diet, see a nutritionist. If you have difficulty setting an exercise schedule, hire a personal trainer or ask a friend to workout with you. If your sleep is disturbed, see a doctor or attend a sleep clinic. If you find you are increasingly relying on substances to cope with stress, attend a local meeting and find a sponsor. You do not have to approach your health alone. Surround yourself with supporters who encourage your maintenance of healthy habits.
- Develop habits that you want to keep. Don’t become a vegetarian if you love meat. Don’t force yourself to drink kale smoothies if you can’t stand the taste of kale. Engaging in habits you dislike won’t help those activities become habits. The purpose of these habits is to reduce stress and increase healing, not to chain you to a lifestyle that makes you miserable.
- Allow yourself to “cheat.” Skipping the smoothie and eating a bacon and egg sandwich instead or missing your kickboxing class because you are overtired are not signs that you should drop your healthy habit. You have multiple self-care needs and sometimes you need comfort instead. Post-loss life is unpredictable. You may not be able to keep to the schedule you want. Allow for deviations and know they are minor interruptions in the course of your healing progress.