Grief can overwhelm your usual coping mechanisms. How and why does this happen? And to what extent should you accept your difficulty in coping?

Why can grief make it harder to cope?

Grief necessitates effective coping mechanisms, but it can simultaneously break down your usual strategies.

Grief can turn your whole world around–directly or indirectly. Direct effects of grief on your coping mechanisms might include losing your most trusted confidante, having to work out a new childcare schedule, or crying every time you hear a former comfort song.

But the indirect effects of grief on coping mechanisms are also worth mentioning. The emotional exertion of grieving might make you sleep too much and avoid the exercise you need to stay healthy. On the other side of the coin, your thoughts might race when you try to sleep, once you’ve put away your distractions for the day. 


Changed bodily functions

Your body may change in an effort to help and protect you during this time. In some cases, these effects are helpful, but for others, grief can cause problematic physical symptoms. 

“Research to date has shown that, like many other stressors, grief frequently leads to changes in the endocrine, immune, autonomic nervous, and cardiovascular systems; all of these are fundamentally influenced by brain function and neurotransmitters. However, the significance of these changes is not well understood. They may be primarily adaptive physiologic responses that in some persons become maladaptive and physiologically deleterious.” – INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE Committee on Health Consequences of the Stress of Bereavement

DEFINITION: “adaptive” – helpful, allowing a person to adjust to circumstances

Sleep hygiene and grief

Sleep is important for coping with any kind of emotional turmoil. However, grief often interrupts or changes how we sleep.

When it comes to sleep while grieving, the usual rules may need to be applied differently. For example, if your mind is racing due to grief, you might choose to distract yourself from your own brain–even though that goes against usual sleep hygiene recommendations.

Keeping a quiet bedroom is known to help insomnia. This includes turning off the TV and phone to avoid stimulating your brain. But during grief, your brain may be in a constant state of overstimulation, racing thoughts, and anxiety. If you can turn your attention to a quiet TV show instead of grieving, that reprieve may in fact help you fall asleep more easily.

Naps and sleeping too much

Under usual circumstances, some choose to avoid naps, as they may keep you from getting a restful night of sleep later. But if you’re struggling to sleep at night due to grief, there’s nothing wrong with a snooze after work or at lunchtime. 

Alternatively, you might just be feeling really depressed and needing more sleep lately. That’s ok too. Grief and all its related emotions are hard to process. Even if it’s under the surface, grief can be an active and very draining ordeal–that’s reason enough to listen to your fatigue.

Trouble with appetite (too much or too little)

Fueling our bodies with food is another way we can cope with the demanding grief process. However, this helps create a tricky relationship between grief and food.

Some people stop feeling hungry while grieving, creating a nasty cycle that makes it harder to calm yourself from stress. Researchers at Ulm University in Germany cite multiple studies demonstrating that “It is…known that hunger is a potent activator of the sympathetic nervous system.”

If you can’t eat, you’re more likely to stay in fight-or-flight (sympathetic) mode instead of rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) mode. Conversely, if your nervous system has heavier sympathetic activity, you may have trouble eating. 

You stay hungry because you’re stressed, and you stay stressed because you’re hungry. 

More info on vagus nerve, sympathetic, and parasympathetic nervous system

Without food to fuel the strenuous grieving process, it’s hard for your body to feel safe enough to heal. At the other extreme, if you’re more prone to stress eating, you may experience increased appetite with grief. 

Understand that even if you might put on a few pounds, your body might really need that fuel reserve right now. Think of it like your body is smart: it recognizes the energy demands of grief, and decides to increase energy intake. 

Feeling scattered or distracted

Rumination about your grief can make it harder to plan what you need to do in order to stay healthy and maintain responsibilities. Even if you’re usually organized, your brain simply may not be working right now. 

Understand that brain activity changes during the grieving process, and the flood of stress hormones also works against concentration. Instead of trying to put mind over matter, consider giving yourself a break during this time. If you’re having trouble focusing, look for opportunities to reduce responsibility and the need to focus. Distraction is a sign that your brain is overloaded, so where possible, help yourself by de-stressing.

How much should you “push” yourself during the grieving process?

Grief creates concrete changes in your body and brain, so it makes perfect sense that you might not be able to cope as usual. Give yourself slack for the messiness and struggle that comes with grieving. You should not hesitate to lean into your impulses for sleep, snacks, or stress reduction.

However, one way you should continue to push yourself is socially. Of course, alone time is part of the grieving process, but try to accept the support available to you. 

It’s not noble or heroic to grieve alone. Even the New York Times warns readers: “Don’t Grieve Alone. Reach Out.” Isolation, in fact, may prolong the grieving process. 

It’s ok to be not-ok

Even the best coping mechanisms may not be enough while grieving. There is no magical cure or silver bullet to eliminate grief–it’s more of a “getting through it” situation. So give yourself some compassion and patience for how difficult this time may be. You may eventually return to normal, or you may have to find a new normal.

You’re not a failure for grieving for so long or having so much trouble.