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Pillars of Strength 5/8: Mindbody

Psychotherapist Julia Samuel MBE has spent 25 years working with bereaved families. In this weekly blog series, the author of Grief Works is sharing her concept of the ‘pillars of strength’, which we can use to help clients grieve and rebuild their lives. Today, Samuel introduces the fifth pillar – the mindbody – and offers tips on how to regulate this while grieving.

Grief is embodied. It sits in the body silently screaming. People often put their hand on their heart and say, “I’m heartbroken”, or on their chest as if there is a 10 ton brick sitting there, crushing the life out of them. It means the pain of grief is often felt like fear, and tips our bodily system into a heightened state of hyper vigilance.

We know from neuroscience that every thought that we have has a physiological component, which is felt in our body. The mind and the body are interconnected – we can refer to the mindbody, a single interweaving unit. Neuroscientists often talk about how “the body remembers” and “the body holds the score”. Experiences are held in our body and influence both what we think and the decisions we take. Every thought we have influences how we feel, and every feeling can trigger a thought.

We are primitively wired to have a negative bias: to look for danger, which can turn on the fight/flight/freeze system. So when we are grieving, we need to work particularly hard to counterbalance that. I am not saying we can flick a switch and be optimistic. But as therapists we can factor in that bias and try to bring in more of a ‘yes’ bias. The most helpful way to do this is to help our client wind their system down, to rebalance it. There are examples of how to do this further down.

The mindbody is a system of interweaving connections, and profoundly influences choices and behaviours as well as our mood. Eighty per cent of decision-making is influenced by emotion, and our previous experience. Impulse control – the ability to delay gratification or choose what to say and when – comes under particular pressure when we are grieving. If clients don’t find ways of calibrating their extreme feelings, they may use bad habits like drugs and alcohol to anaesthetize them, or vent them on others.

Helping grieving clients regulate their mindbody

We can help our clients establish a regime that helps regulate their body, which then helps support them emotionally. The more habitual it is the more effective it is. It needs to be a combination of:

  • Cardiovascular exercise such as running or cycling, which raises the heart rate and helps ease the feeling of fear. It reduces the stress levels and releases the feel-good calming neurotransmitter, dopamine.
  • A relaxation / meditation exercise, which helps manage anxiety and wind the system down. It tells us we are out of danger and in a safe place.
  • Eating and drinking in a balanced, healthy way – without great spikes of sugar, coffee and alcohol that send the body peaking and crashing.

Find out more about Julia’s work and writing at Grief Works

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Julia Samuel

Julia Samuel MBE, Msc, MBACP (Snr Accredited) UKCP Registered Psychotherapist was Psychotherapist for Paediatrics at St Mary’s Hospital Paddington, the post she established in 1992, where her role for 25 years involved seeing families who have children or babies who die, and where she trained and supported the staff.

In 1994 she worked to help launch and establish The Child Bereavement Charity, and as the Founder Patron was involved and continues to be involved in many aspects of the charities work, having a key role in fundraising, strategy and training. In 2016, Julia was awarded an MBE in recognition of her services to bereaved children, and in 2017 Middlesex University awarded her an Honorary Doctorate. In 2017 Julia published Grief Works, which was a bestseller in the UK and has been published in 17 countries. She also has a private practice where she sees families and individuals for many different issues.

Roles: Chairman Birthright (Wellbeing) (1992-5); Founder Patron the Child Bereavement Charity 1994+; Trustee Child Bereavement Charity 2008+; Tutor Metanoia Institute 1997-2008; Governor of British Association of Counselling  and Psychotherapy (2001-2004); Vice President British Association Counselling and Psychotherapy Nov 2013+.

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