Despite having many common features, the experience of grief is unique to each person. Its symptoms are not just emotional and mental. They can also include physical effects on your body.
Researchers have made clear connections between grief and certain bodily changes, including effects on heart health, sleep patterns, moods, and more.
Keep reading to find out the mind-body connections between grief and physical symptoms. We’ll overview research identifying what health outcomes grieving can cause and what steps you can take to cope.
Grief can have a profound effect on your mental and physical health. Research from 2019 emphasized that grief can cause cardiovascular issues and premature death in the months after a spouse has died.
Here’s a look at some of the most-studied physical changes grief can cause.
Grief has been shown to cause immune system dysfunction in some people, raising general inflammation and the risk of infections.
According to a 2019 reviewTrusted Source of research, grieving people have lower levels of certain immune system cells, including natural killer cells and lymphocytes. They also have higher levels of inflammatory markers (including IL-6 and IL-1), which can further worsen the likelihood of illness or infection.
Vaccines may also be less effective when administered to grieving people, whose bodies don’t seem to create as many antibodies to respond to infections.
Experiencing grief shares many symptoms with chronic mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. For people with a mood or anxiety disorder, grieving can worsen existing symptoms of worry or hopelessness.
Grief can trigger powerful emotions, which include:
Moods have direct physical outcomes on your body. Depression and anxiety can cause fatigue and social withdrawal, and result in spending less time on activities you enjoy. This can lead to weight changes, poor sleep hygiene, and chronic pain, among other effects.
If you have a diagnosed mental health condition, it’s very important to keep following your treatment plan when grieving. Continuing to go to therapy or support groups, taking medication, or participating in any other ongoing care is essential to maintaining your health and stability while processing a loss.
Experiencing grief is also associated with an increased riskTrusted Source of suicide depending on a loved one’s cause of death. This is especially true if you recently lost someone to suicide. Know you’re not alone, and help is available.
Grieving people may notice complications with both sleep quantity and quality. This may depend on the severity of a person’s grief, which is highly personal and hard to quantify.
Researchers have several theoriesTrusted Source as to why grieving impairs sleep. One potential explanation is that people are more likely to think of their loved ones at night before bed, or dream about them.
Problems sleeping can also cause further physical symptoms of grief. When you don’t get sufficient sleep, you usually experience less energy during the day from fatigue. You may have trouble focusing or headaches.
Grief and depression aren’t the only things that can cause fatigue. Learn more about potential causes of daytime fatigue.
Researchers studying the connections between psychological and physical pain found similarities in certain (but not all) areas of the brain. They theorized that it’s possible for activation of psychological pain pathways to increase the experience of physical pain.
Grief can also raise the riskTrusted Source of chest pain, possibly from the release of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol can cause blood vessels to constrict, slowing or stopping blood flow, which can lead to chest pain.
Grieving can cause a number of abdominal-related symptoms.
These factors can then affect other aspects of your health, including your immune system and sleep. You can experience reduced energy levels from nutrient and vitamin deficiencies.
Depression and anxiety, which often accompany grief, can also cause disordered eating and gastrointestinal distress in some people. There’s a growing body of research on the brain-gut pathway and the way psychological factors may impact our gut.
The condition can cause your heart’s left ventricle to become weaker, mimicking the symptoms of a heart attack (myocardial infarction). This type of cardiomyopathy is usually temporary and resolves within a month.
However, it’s also possibleTrusted Source to have a heart attack as a result of a severe grief response. Grief increases blood pressure and heart rate, similar to a panic attack. These effects can tighten blood vessels and heighten the risks that plaque will break off and cause a heart attack.
The stress from grief can also trigger atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm.
If you believe you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and lightheadedness, seek emergency assistance immediately.
The grief experience can change shape and evolve unpredictably. You may have days when you feel stable and optimistic, and other days when the grief feels overwhelming.
In addition to maintaining treatment for any underlying mental or physical health conditions, practicing proper self-care can help you cope with loss.
Consider adopting these self-care practices:
- Go to bed at the same time every night and follow a bedtime routine that brings you calm. This could include taking a bath before bed, listening to your favorite music, or refraining from using electronics after a certain time of night.
- Eat a balanced diet.
- Get in regular physical activity to the extent you are able. This could be structured exercise, going for walks, or even playing with a pet.
- Find a hobby you can enjoy that helps relieve stress. This could include creative pursuits like art and music, volunteering in your community, or practicing meditation.
Remember, grieving takes time. Some experts even recommend setting aside a specific time each day to reflect and grieve. Doing so may give you a feeling of control when grief can otherwise make you feel out of control.
Grief is a part of life, and everyone experiences it differently. We can experience grief over a death, a medical diagnosis, or the ending of a relationship.
Grief has both significant and quantifiable mental and physical effects on the body. In addition to psychological symptoms of depression and anxiety, grief can cause sleep problems, chest pain, and gastrointestinal issues. In some cases, grief can increase the risk of heart attack and suicide.
Give yourself grace when grieving. Seek emotional support, whether it’s family and friends, attending a support group, or talking with a therapist. Prioritize eating a balanced diet and getting some form of physical activity.
For many people, grief is a lifelong process that has unpredictable ups and downs. However, it’s entirely possible to achieve acceptance and move forward, even as you continue to hold space for your grief.
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