Whether you’re mourning the end of a romantic relationship, the death of a loved one, or the dissolution of a friendship, grief can be all-consuming. And it doesn’t just impact our emotional state — it impacts us physically, often showing up as changes in appetite and our ability to sleep. But there’s no doubt about it, an exhausted, under-nourished body will make it even more challenging to process your feelings. We spoke to Laura Lea Bryant, a Certified Holistic Chef and Heartache Consultant, to learn more about the physical effects of grief and how to care for ourselves as we heal.
While there is no “one size fits all” approach to healing, there are overlapping patterns in how our bodies respond to heartache.
“A difficult heartbreak, especially one perceived as sudden, can affect countless biological processes,” says Laura. “You may know this from experience, recalling how your appetite disappeared and digestive distress appeared, along with brain fog, sleep disturbances, and much more. Studies reinforce this, citing that stressful events, especially those involving interpersonal loss, can activate pathways that lead to increased inflammation, and immune and gut function dysregulation. These physiological changes can negatively impact mental health, particularly manifesting as depression and anxiety.”
So how do we nurture those biological processes, and in turn, support our hearts and minds through the healing process? Laura offers up eight essential self-care tips.
1. Don’t dismiss or ignore your pain.
Most of us don’t mourn publicly because grief and sadness make others uncomfortable. We feel regulated by societal norms and a pressure to “get over it.” This is called disenfranchised grief, and it’s a typical emotional response to feeling bound by the “rules” of how and when we should mourn.
“People are suffering deeply, but society offers very little grace and accommodation,” says Laura. “I describe it as vacillating between numbness and feeling on fire, neither of which are psychologically conducive to ‘business as usual.’”
But there’s simply no substitute for the grieving process, and that may look different to you than it does to someone else. The road may be rocky, but accepting the reality of your loss and permitting yourself to feel the full range of emotional responses is the first step toward healing. You may experience any number of emotions like shock, numbness, disbelief, guilt, anger, abandonment, and sadness. Give yourself the time and space to name your feelings and reflect upon them, so you can move through them.
2. Begin a practice of self-compassion.
Meeting yourself with kindness is a beautiful form of self-care. “When we are compassionate towards ourselves, we recognize that we are fallible human beings who experience suffering just like everyone else,” says Laura. “Our pain and mistakes are not uniquely our own, and thus cannot be uniquely deserving of a punishment that we would never turn onto others.”
To practice self-compassion, Laura says it’s important to take note of harsh, self-critical thoughts when they pop up. “Ask yourself, is there a more true or accurate, self-compassionate thought I could replace this with? For example, instead of, ‘This breakup is all my fault,’ you might shift to ‘Every relationship involves two people, and I know I did the best I could with the information and tools I had at the time.’
While this practice requires serious practice, Laura explains that it sets the tone for a fruitful healing journey.
3. Lean on your support system.
Ask for help. Allow those around you to offer the support and love you need and deserve. Reach out to friends and family. Let people in so you have a soft place to land.
If you don’t feel you have a strong enough support system around you, take this opportunity to create one. Seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor can be a practical starting point. Self-help books (or podcasts) can be another form of support, offering helpful coping strategies and reminding you that your pain doesn’t exist in a vacuum — you’re not alone.
4. Find activities that align with your current stage of grief.
Adjusting to a new environment or way of life is challenging and can be painful. The sudden upheaval can take its toll on our immune systems, sleep cycles, eating habits, and more.
Laura recommends new routines to support — rather than further drain — your body. “I shifted from intense HIIT-style workouts to walking, yoga, and Pilates,” she says. “I stopped drinking alcohol, minimized caffeine, and politely declined most social interactions. I focused on spending time with a small handful of loved ones and prioritized sleep, meditation, and my journaling practices.”
Your list of soul-nourishing activities is specific to you — along with those Laura mentioned, you might try stretching, reading, listening to soothing music, taking a bath, getting a massage, gardening, or cutting out sugar. Embrace your moments of joy and peace, and continue building on them.
5. Learn how healing and hunger go hand-in-hand, and adjust your diet accordingly.
“After my 2021 breakup, I had zero desire to eat,” says Laura of her own experience. “It was humbling to look at my own cookbooks and find the recipes too complicated for even me to make. I needed food that was even more simple and took into account my body’s fragile state. As I investigated what was happening to me physiologically and psychologically, I created recipes that aligned with the different stages of my grief.”
If you’re struggling with your appetite following a painful change of circumstance, you’re not alone.
“The typical trajectory I see with clients is an initial loss of appetite, followed by a return with a vengeance, often characterized by intense cravings for sugar, fat and crunchy, salty foods,” says Laura.
In the beginning stages, appetite is often low or nonexistent. During this stage, Laura recommends easy-to-digest, simple foods and minimizing acidic or spicy ingredients and raw vegetables. She recommends avocado toast or grass-fed yogurt with bananas as breakfast options. For larger meals, she suggests puréed soups, bone broth, and chicken with rice and sautéed greens.
Adjust again when your hunger returns. “This can be a good time to focus on nutritionally supportive versions of favorite comfort foods and cravings,” Laura advises. “I find people have slightly more desire and energy to cook during this stage.” For example, instead of a drive-through chicken sandwich, opt for an air fryer version at home.
But keep in mind that, even when hunger returns, you may notice differences in digestion. “It’s especially important to understand how grief impacts the gut. What might be ‘healthy’ for you normally — perhaps a kale salad — could be incredibly uncomfortable to digest when you’re under duress. We want to adjust accordingly and come up with a new definition of ‘healthy’ for this period.”
6. Become a NO person.
In a season of heartache, giving ourselves the space, time, and permission to grieve is essential — sometimes, this looks like slowing down and saying “no” more often. “You deserve to be highly protective of your time, energy, and health,” says Laura. “Look at your calendar and cancel or reschedule anything that isn’t an obligation. The world might not recognize how delicate you are, so you must.” Spend your newfound time focusing on self-care, whatever that means to you!
7. Create a morning routine that helps regulate your nervous system for the day.
The morning offers quiet moments before the day’s chaos and potential triggers. Laura suggests working toward a “rest and digest” state rather than a “fight or flight” state through calming breathing exercises, meditation, or gentle walking. “Make sure to hydrate, maybe with some coconut water for electrolytes, and minimize caffeine and excess sugar,” she offers. “If you have any appetite, you might try oatmeal with peanut butter and berries or scrambled eggs over buttered sourdough.”
8. Work on managing your thoughts and redirecting them to the present moment.
Leaning into the past and what-ifs can be debilitating. “One of the hardest aspects of a breakup or divorce is the stories we make up and the thoughts we obsess over, such as what it “means” about you, where you “went wrong” (spoiler, you didn’t), what the future holds, or how you’re going to get through it,” says Laura.
“Of all the tools I use with my clients, our work to re-pattern these thoughts and beliefs is the most important and effective. Every single time a scary, future-tripping, what-if thought comes into your mind, redirect to the moment you’re in. Notice the sounds around you, the feel of your coffee cup, and the room’s temperature. Then, ask yourself what might serve you at this very moment. What can you accomplish or give yourself today, recognizing that you’ll never have evidence or answers for these hypothetical questions? Healing happens in each present moment. Never anywhere else.”
For easy recipes to see you through tough times, check out Laura’s latest cookbook, Recipes for an Aching Heart. And for more insights on self-care, be sure to check out the content series we produced on mental and emotional well-being.
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