Health & Wellness

Dr. Pingel on How to Cope with Grief and Stress: 5 Tips to Help You Heal

Stress. We hear this word so often that we’ve simply become numb to its meaning—and its impact on our health, well-being, and overall quality of life.

Knowing the impact it has on their health, I’ve spent the last 10+ years asking my beloved patients about their perceived stress levels. Much to my surprise, many would not admit to feeling stress. Instead, they would often rate themselves as a 4 or 5 on a scale of 10 and report common responses:

  • “I have a good life.”
  • “I’m so busy focusing on my family.”
  • “I have nothing to be stressed over.”

But when I asked more involved questions about their lives (ones that required more vulnerability and self-reflection), I would see a pattern emerge. Questions such as, “When do you allow time for yourself?” or “When are you vulnerable?” would result in sideways glances and indirect answers. My patients simply could not answer directly—and they also couldn’t recognize that this inability to answer these questions was likely a sign that they were actually under significant stress! 

How could I possibly know this? Well, I know from personal experience.

You’re Not Alone: My Story of Grief and Stress

My name is Dr. Tricia Pingel. I am a 43-year-old naturopathic physician who owns and operates a thriving medical practice in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’m also married to a wonderful husband and the mother of two amazing boys. In short, I live a good life—and I’m incredibly grateful and appreciative for that. We are healthy, we are able to pay our bills, and I am surrounded by an incredible support system.

From the outside, there is no reason that I should feel stressed.

But, here is the thing: Despite being healthy and happy, I am human. And as with most of us, I have had my share of life experiences that cause heartache, change, and—you guessed it—stress.

Around age 10, I lost my uncle to suicide. While it wasn’t a huge impact on me directly, my father was devastated. And I loved him so much that it hurt me to watch him hurt. Then, at age 24, just two days after my loving husband proposed, my father had a fatal stroke. And just like that, he was gone. This was my first real experience dealing with grief and stress.

A few years later, I watched a very close family friend, whom I considered a grandmother, give into cardiovascular disease and dementia. Around the same time, we lost my mother-in-law to a rapid progression of early onset Alzheimer’s. This was also right around the time that I gave birth to our first son.

Soon after, l lost my paternal grandmother. And shortly after her passing, I helped to care for my mother, who lost her battle with cancer just three years ago. Again, this year, we lost my maternal grandmother—and my grandfather, who is declining rapidly from dementia, is not far behind them.

Now, this isn’t meant to be a pity party. I’m blessed and very fortunate to have amazing family and friends who have supported me through all of these losses. I’m sharing my story to let you know that my patients weren’t alone in their experiences of stress, and you aren’t alone either.

My Wake-Up Call

For many years, I was in denial about the grief and stress these losses caused me. I “moved on,” “survived,” and “focused on my family”—all the things we’re supposed to do to basically ignore what we are feeling. Those are the words we tell others so we look “together.”

I’ve learned from these experiences, though, that your body will not ignore the stress and grief it has endured—and, at some point, a healthy body will alarm you with symptoms. When I reflect on my health around the time of my mother’s passing (after seeing her decline from cancer for over a period of 10 months), I am disheartened by my denial. Not only was I becoming far too thin, but my hair was falling out, my skin was dry, my mood was indifferent, and my focus was low.

Dr. Pingel and her mom

Dr. Pingel and her mom.

I shrugged all of this off to the “loss” of my mom. It never even occurred to me that my physical symptoms of grief and stress were the compounded effects of my everyday tasks and the other losses in my life as well.

I woke up one day feeling like the world had fallen and decided it was time to get some labs done. For those of you have who have read my book, “Total Health Turnaround,” or have seen me as a provider, you know that your DHEA levels are a fantastic indicator of whether or not you may have adrenal fatigue. A good target number is around 100 to 200. Well, take a guess at where mine were … 26. Yikes!

When I saw that number, I broke down and cried. It was probably one of the first really good cries of many since then, as I released that pain. In that exact moment, every painful event I had ever experienced in my life all came to a head.

I began to think about the times I almost passed out on roller coasters with my family (a side effect of low adrenal function) and how I was often too tired to go out to dinner. I thought about how clumps would fall out anytime I brushed my hair. I saw the bags under my eyes, the sadness in my face, and the absence of all muscle tone in my body. These were physical symptoms of stress and grief. These were symptoms of adrenal fatigue.

That’s when it hit meI was my patient. And I had to change unless I wanted to be the next family member to leave this Earth. I had no choice.

Healing from my grief and stress has not simply been tightening up my diet and exercising more. Instead, I had to focus on healing my heartache, my sorrow, and my sadness. This wasn’t simply a physical transformation; it was an emotional one.

Facing Your Cause of Stress

Does this sound familiar at all? Do you “do everything right,” yet still feel “off” on a regular basis? Do you consume nutritious foods and work out regularly, yet wonder why you don’t feel better or are struggling with certain health or weight concerns? Or maybe you have every intention of cleaning up your diet and leading a healthier lifestyle, but find yourself diving into unhealthy habits, unable to control yourself.

Consider this: Have you faced your pain or the cause of your stress—that dark side living inside all of us that we often suppress to look “put together” for others? Here is the reality: Odds are you have experienced some type of grief, loss, pain, heartache, rough times, or pressure. And the odds are even greater that you have suppressed some sort of negative experience into the inner depths of your body.

If you don’t recognize it, face it, and grow from it, your body will eventually start to decline. But if you learn how to cope with grief and stress, you can flourish!

Top 5 Tips for Coping with Grief and Stress

Here are some ways you can begin to heal your body from the stress or grief you’ve experienced:

1. Take time to feel your loss. By pushing aside or burying your feelings, you may actually postpone the healing process—and maybe even worsen the effects on your body. Acute grief, which occurs in the first 12 months following a loss, can actually trigger chronic stress.

The problem here is that chronic stress has been shown to affect both the mind and the body and may lead to numerous health issues, such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, pain, and even heart attack or death. [1] So, take the time you need and process your grief in the healthiest way you can. You can try talking with close family or friends (as I did) or even writing a letter to your loved one (or the source of your stress) if you feel things were left unsaid. If you find that you’re still struggling after six to 12 months, consider seeking out a counselor for additional guidance. 

Dr. Pingel on grief and stress: journaling

Journaling and writing letters to loved ones who have passed can help the healing process.

2. Reframe your negatives. Look, I’m the first to acknowledge that there is nothing positive about losing someone you love or experiencing a highly stressful situation. That said, I’m a big believer in reevaluating your situation, or your negative experiences, in an effort to facilitate a positive outcome. Sound too far-fetched? Here’s a story for you.

When my dad was in a coma in the hospital, I was actually planning to become a veterinarian. My experience with his physicians changed that. I was so frustrated that no one could (or would) give us any answers. I wanted to understand why certain things were happening to him, and I was just told it was “normal” for his situation. I looked at his MRI results and asked the doctor more questions, which he simply wouldn’t answer.

At that moment, I realized there was a huge lack of connection between the conventional physicians we were dealing with and the patients and their families. Shortly after, I discovered the field of natural medicine and realized it aligned with my beliefs… and that I could provide the care and knowledge to others that we so desperately wanted and needed during my father’s hospitalization.

Take a few moments and reflect on your source of stress or experience causing your grief. Is there anything you can reframe or act upon to help facilitate any kind of positive outcome? Perhaps you’d like to volunteer at a special nonprofit or donate some items in a loved one’s name. Whatever you decide, remember that your mental and physical health still matters—and you deserve to feel fulfilled and happy again.

3. Get active. This isn’t about weight loss. Instead, it’s about reconnecting with your mind and your body by helping you cope with grief and stress. In a study published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, researchers found that following an eight-week mind-body program helped to reduce stress in seniors who had lost a spouse. [2]

Specifically, the study showed that certain activities such as yoga or tai chi reversed the effects of stress and anxiety on a molecular level. Those who practiced these mind-body actions had lower levels of certain inflammation-causing genes than those who didn’t participate in the exercises.

Healing from grief and stress: couple walking

Being active and seeking support from loved ones can help you cope with grief.

Don’t feel like completing an exercise routine? No worries—simply taking a relaxing walk through nature was also found to help relieve stress. The key is just to find what works for you and stick with it.

4. Eat a well-balanced diet. Now is not the time to go on a “diet.” I don’t really believe in diets anyway! However, now is the perfect time to remember to feed your body the nutrition it needs. Why? Well, experiencing stress has actually been shown to trigger cravings for high-sugar and fatty foods, which lead to blood sugar and digestion issues, causing you to feel worse than you already do!

When you sit down to eat, just remember to try to include some lean protein, non-starchy veggies, and lots of water to stay hydrated.

5. Focus on the most positive elements in your life. Just as we all experience rough times, we all have positive forces in our lives as well. Whether your positive force is a special person, place, thing, or even a hidden talent, when you’re coping with grief and loss (or trying to cut back on the stress in your life), it’s always helpful to focus on something that brings you joy.

Personally, I left positive notes around the house to remind me of all the things I have to be grateful for. This was a quick and easy trick and provided a much-needed mind shift for me during hard times. I sincerely hope it helps you as well.

You’re Why I’m Here

I had a choice to let my pain control me or let it be the catalyst to help me grow and help others. I know that life is full of hard choices, requiring incredible discipline and focus. And you may feel lost most of the time. But that’s why I’m here—to help you reframe your negative experiences and transform them into positive outcomes. By doing the real work on yourself, you will not only “survive,” you will thrive!

I’m so looking forward to going on this journey with you. I’m here to listen, guide you, and be your shoulder to cry on because I believe that everyone needs support in order to grow. But I want us to have some fun together, too!

Remember that you aren’t alone and know you have a friend in Arizona who’s thinking of you and wishing you happiness, health, and peace!

XO, Dr. Tricia Pingel

 

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