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Mental Health

Do You Have ‘Hidden’ Grief? What it Looks Like and What to Do About It

Even small losses deserve our attention.

All year, you’ve been looking forward to celebrating your son’s graduation…until it was canceled. There’s no doubt life has shifted in unprecedented ways. The uncertainty we’re all feeling is more than destabilizing — it’s causing us to mourn.

And while we recognize the need to grieve profound loss, it’s harder to understand the overwhelming emotions surrounding other setbacks, such as lost income, missed family reunions, and canceled celebrations.

Grief has a spectrum, but all personal losses are important. “Just like when we eat and release what the body doesn’t need, we also have to ‘digest’ our losses as a way to decide what pain to let go of,” says trauma specialist Arielle Schwartz, PhD. But if we believe grief is only warranted for life and death matters, we might dismiss or undervalue those feelings.

That’s where hidden grief comes in — if we don’t recognize such small losses as “worthy” of our attention, we avoid processing that pain…and those bottled-up feelings may leak into our life in unexpected ways, often disguised as insomnia, anger, or constant anxiety.

To move on from this “secret stress,” we must recognize our trapped feelings and allow them to flow through us. As Schwartz assures, “Grief is a doorway that opens us up to a more open, peaceful heart.” Read on to learn how to process this emotion so you can embrace joy — even in times of struggle.

Confused? Journal this way.

You learn that the community picnic you were looking forward to has been canceled, and you burst into tears, unsure why this news has set you off. Ambiguous loss is grief that you can’t quite define. The brain’s emotion centers are overwhelmed, leaving us feeling, sad, uncertain, and powerless.

Bring more clarity to your feelings with “emotionally expressive” writing, which engages the logic center of your brain. This form of grief journaling is one of the best ways to corral elusive emotions after loss. Simply focus on jotting down your feelings without censoring yourself.

“Transforming ambiguous feelings into concrete words allows us to escape the emotional quicksand,” assures neurologist Lisa M. Shulman, MD, author of Before and After Loss. It works by gradually desensitizing you to the emotional charge associated with trauma. “Be patient with this process — even if your writing seems nonsensical at first, it’s helping you become more aware of your feelings.”

Overwhelmed? Cue “collective compassion.”

As you’re bombarded with bad news from around the globe, your thoughts begin to spiral and your anxiety skyrockets. This collective grief — the sense that so many of us are suffering at the same time — can trigger a spike in the stress hormone cortisol and increase our heart rate.

To help release the overwhelming emotions caused by this shared grief, try a “visual” meditation, where you imagine dividing your worries into manageable chunks. Simply step back from the enormity of it all and choose a single worry to attend to at a time, such as your grief over so many of us losing our jobs.

By allowing yourself to grieve specific things over time, you can relax knowing you’re not trying to tackle it all at once. “Dealing with collective grief is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Schwartz. “So pace yourself and remember, if we can process collective grief, we begin to feel collective compassion in the world.”

Anxious? Try a mindful snack.

Looking at your calendar, you wonder if you’ll ever feel safe enough to vacation like you used to. Anticipatory grief — where you start mourning ahead of a loss — is a double-edged sword. While it can help your brain prepare, it can also backfire if it creates heightened anxiety for a loss that never occurs. Think of it like watching a horror movie where the monster never jumps out — your brain and body constantly remain in a tense, “high-alert” mode for no reason.

One way to cue calm and feel more in control when facing uncertainty is by grounding yourself in the present. “Chewing is a deceptively simple and effective calming activity for the body,” says Schwartz. That’s because when our jaw moves, there’s both compression and loosening in the inner ear, which controls our sense of where our body begins and ends in space. As a result, the simple act of noshing on a healthy, crunchy snack, like popcorn, helps us feel safe and balanced, physically and emotionally.

Lonely? Create a mini memorial.

Everyone is so busy trying to adapt to this “new normal,” you feel ashamed wishing people were checking in with you about your own personal challenges. Disenfranchised grief occurs when our sadness isn’t acknowledged, compounding our sense of loss, because we start to believe we’re the only ones feeling this way. “We don’t often recognize that grief is a social emotion,” says Schwartz. “It’s meant to be a shared experience.” In fact, Harvard research finds that communal rituals help us heal faster after loss. Adds Shulman, “Emotional healing is enhanced by being witnessed.”

To feel more connected with others, try memorializing your grief — even for small things — in a way that can be shared with others. Plant a tree, for example, with family members; ask friends to light a candle at the same time as you at home; or sketch a picture symbolizing your grief and post it on social media to be seen. Experts find that as soon as we legitimize our own experience, others are more likely to do the same. As Shulman puts it, “The importance of rituals is hardwired in the brain — they’re a guaranteed way to move from bereavement to betterment.”

This article originally appeared in our print magazine.

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