Many people are unaware that almost everyday of our lives we experience grief. From not being able to spend our day as we wish (having to go to work), to experiencing a traumatic loss (losing a loved one in a car accident). While these extremes of loss produce completely different levels of reaction, each individual will also have their own way of processing their grief/loss.
Since the days of Elizabeth Kubler Ross's work on the stages of grief, counsellors have described the cycle of grief as one where many people experience the same emotions, but experience these in a different order and a different intensity, according to a number of factors. These factors include the type of loss or grief event, the relationships the grieving person had with the loss object or person, the unexpectedness of the grief and more.
Grief, even when it is protracted, can can be processed gradually and resolved, by re-adjusting to life post-loss as a new inevitable reality.
Most People Cope to a Point
Most people are able to withstand some amount of stress and anxiety associated with negative life changing events. We have the inner resources to cope and are able to adapt in order to alleviate anxiety. As such, our coping strategies help us to avoid crises.
However, it is not always possible to develop effective means of coping with life changing events and instead we may end up relying on maladaptive strategies. These negative strategies may only serve to compound our sense of stress and anxiety and exacerbate the symptoms associated with it. Sometimes a person who develops unhelpful coping mechanisms trundles along leading a poorer quality life in terms of their psychological and social wellbeing. Others who experience this may feel that they have little or no control and they are unable to help themselves. This may cause the person to either panic or to retreat into themselves but invariably leads to a crisis.
When a crisis does occur it can last from days to weeks but it is finite. Sometimes the person is able to overcome the crisis without outside help because they are able to harness their inner resources. Sometimes the person is able to cope because they have a reliable social support network they can fall back on. At other times the person may need to call upon counsellors or other health care professionals to help them to find their way out of a crisis. In severe cases, the person may need to be hospitalised in order that they can receive effective treatment to help them deal with the crisis.
How Do People Perceive a Life Changing Event?
Whether or not a life changing event evolves into a full blown crisis depends on how it is perceived by the individual as well as how adaptive their coping strategies are. The way that an event is perceived depends on things like:
- Current stress levels
- Personal coping mechanisms
- Previous responses to stress, trauma, loss, anxiety, etc.
- Social support groups
In addition to personal factors, perception of an event is also influenced by how threatening it is seen by the individual with regards to such things as:
- Stability of life
If you consider an event such as assault then it can be seen to be very disruptive because it derails a person's sense of safety, stability of relationships and family life, and possibly their perception of the future and life goals. If the victim also has poor coping mechanisms, low self-esteem and a lack of social support they will struggle to cope.
Perception of Control
One of the reasons why some people are able to cope better with crises than others is the level of control we believe we have over them. If we perceive that we have a high degree of control over an event it will be experienced as less stressful than something we believe is beyond our control.
Many studies using what is termed the 'locus of control' have demonstrated a strong link between the degree of control over a stressor and the corresponding experience of stress. People who have an 'internal locus of control' tend to believe that they have a large degree of control over their lives and can make changes where needed to improve their lives. These people are less likely to experience adverse reactions to stress.
On the other hand, people who have an 'external locus of control' are more likely to think that they have little control over what happens to them and are more likely to suffer from exposure to stress. These people may continuously worry about stressful events and become increasingly anxious. In extreme cases, this perpetual worry and feeling of being powerless can lead to 'learned helplessness' whereby the person stops trying and gives up.
In relation to negative life changing events, someone who experiences learned helplessness is so used to being unable to stop the cause of their stress or anxiety that they no longer attempt to avoid the situation - even though if they did they could reduce the stress.
Furthermore, as well as having some degree of control over a stressor, feedback is also very important. Although we may be able to take measures to reduce the impact of a crisis we need to know more than just that we have control over it. If we actually receive feedback which shows us that our efforts have had some success, this will relieve the impact of the stress even more. People are generally more positive and proactive when they can see that their actions are having the desired effect.
Some Need Help
Whilst some people may have social support and help from friends and family, some may find that they are not getting the support they need in this way. This can be because people are not really willing to listen to them, others in the family are grieving as well OR because they do not want to share how they are really feeling with people in their social circle. Sometimes friends and family are very supportive at first, but then their time listening to the person’s problems may drop. In some of these cases, they may seek outside support in the form of a counsellor, psychologist or psychotherapist.
Others may seek help from other professionals such as Stress Management consultants or Life Coaches as a way to change the way they are responding to their life and the changes within in their life.