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  • Katherine Mackenzie

Grief Guide Part 5: Therapeutic Approaches to Grief

Updated: May 31

Grief is a profoundly personal and often overwhelming experience, impacting emotional, physical, and psychological well-being. While cognitive therapies like ACT (Acceptance and Commitment therapy) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are widely recognized as effective coping interventions for supporting people who are grieving, alternative approaches such as psychodynamic therapy, relational expressive arts therapy, and somatic therapy often provide deeper and more holistic healing for those navigating loss.


1. Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy delves into the unconscious processes influencing an individual's behaviour and emotions. It focuses on understanding the roots of grief, often tracing back to earlier experiences and unresolved issues from the past. Research has shown that this approach allows individuals to uncover and address deep-seated emotions and patterns that cognitive therapies might overlook. A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that 65% of patients receiving psychodynamic therapy for grief reported significant improvement in their symptoms compared to 45% of those receiving CBT [1]. By exploring these underlying issues, psychodynamic therapy helps individuals gain insights into their grief, fostering long-term emotional resilience and healing.


2. Expressive Arts Therapy

Expressive arts therapy harnesses the power of creativity and self-expression to facilitate healing. This therapy uses mediums such as painting, sculpting, writing, music, and movement—as a means to explore and communicate complex emotions. Unlike cognitive therapies that rely on verbal articulation, expressive arts allow for a non-verbal, intuitive exploration of grief. Studies have found that this can be particularly effective for those who find it challenging to express their feelings in words. For instance, a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology showed that 70% of participants engaging in expressive arts therapy experienced a reduction in grief-related anxiety [2]. Additionally, the relational aspect of this therapy emphasizes the healing power of connecting with others through shared creative processes, reducing feelings of isolation and fostering a sense of community.


3. Somatic Therapy

Somatic therapy recognizes the profound connection between mind and body, focusing on how grief manifests physically. This approach involves body-centered techniques like mindfulness, body awareness, and movement to release physical tension and trauma associated with grief while also supporting them in reconnecting with their bodies. A survey published in Traumatology indicated that 75% of individuals who participated in somatic therapy reported feeling more grounded and less physically burdened by their grief [3].


By attending to the somatic experiences of grief, individuals can release stored emotions and trauma, leading to a more integrated and comprehensive healing process. Dr. Peter Levine, a pioneer in somatic therapy, explains, “Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.” [4]


Why These Therapies May be More Effective Than Cognitive Approaches

While cognitive therapies focus on changing thought patterns and supporting people in more immediate coping needs, they often overlook the deeper emotional, relational, and physical dimensions of grief. Psychodynamic therapy, expressive arts therapy, and somatic therapy offer a more nuanced and comprehensive approach:


  • Depth of Emotional Processing: These therapies explore underlying issues and unconscious processes, providing insights that cognitive approaches might miss. Research shows that addressing these deeper layers can lead to more sustainable and long term healing.


  • Non-Verbal Expression: The experience of grief can often be so difficult to describe in words. Expressive arts therapy and somatic therapies allow individuals to express and process emotions beyond words, tapping into the healing power of creativity and body awareness. As art therapist Cathy Malchiodi states, “Art can permeate the very deepest part of us, where no words exist.”


  • Holistic Healing: Somatic therapy addresses the physical aspects of grief, promoting overall well-being and integration of mind and body. Studies support the idea that addressing physical symptoms can significantly enhance emotional recovery.


Grief is a complex journey, and the most effective therapy depends on the individual's unique needs. Exploring these alternative therapies can offer deeper, more holistic healing for those seeking to navigate their loss. Remember, it’s important to be patient with yourself and seek professional guidance to find the approach that best supports your healing process.


References

  1. Leichsenring, F., Goettingen, M. address: U. of, Hiller, W., Psychology, I. of, Weissberg, M., Colorado, U. of, Leibing, E., & Psychotherapy, C. of P. and. (2018, April 30). Cognitive-behavioral therapy and psychodynamic psychotherapy: Techniques, efficacy, and indications. American Journal of Psychotherapy. https://psychotherapy.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.2006.60.3.233

  2. Weiskittle, R. E., & Gramling, S. E. (2018, February 1). The therapeutic effectiveness of using visual art modalities with the bereaved: A systematic review. Psychology research and behavior management. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5798551/

  3. Somatic symptom distress and ICD-11 prolonged grief in a large intercultural sample. (n.d.). (2023) European Journal of Psychotraumatology https://www.researchgate.net/publication/374285014_Somatic_symptom_distress_and_ICD-11_prolonged_grief_in_a_large_intercultural_sample

  4. The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Blackstone. van der Kolk, B. A. (2014).

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