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When Grief Gets Physical

When we think about grief, we tend to think about the emotions that we experience, such as sadness, depression, anger, resentment, guilt, relief, fear, and panic. Grief is often described as being on an emotional roller coaster. There are so many bumps and turns that you are not always sure what emotion you might experience at any given time.

However, grief also affects our physical well-being. After a recent loss, a client complained that her entire body felt as though she had been run over by a truck. Most of us who have lost a loved one can relate to her pain. She was surprised to learn that grief and the stress associated with it can have such profound effects on the body. In fact, during the first four to six months after the loss of a loved one, people are more likely to experience some type of physical problem, with men being at greater risk than women.

There are 12 systems in the human body: Nervous, Digestive, Musculoskeletal, Cardiovascular, Renal, Reproductive, Lymphatic, Endocrine, Respiratory, Immune, Hematopoietic and the Integumentary. They are all interconnected with each susceptible to the effects of stress and grief. Many of the most common physical complaints come from the immune, cardiovascular, digestive, and nervous systems. The immune system is our body’s defense system helping us to ward off illness and disease. Grief can cause us to be more susceptible to colds, flu, and other infections. We tend to feel run down and do not have the ability to fight off illness.

Of course, if we already have an illness, it can be exacerbated by grief and take more time to resolve. A recent article in Psychosomatic Medicine (2019) reviewed the research since 1977 on the immune system’s role in bereavement. The author states, “a handful of recent good-quality studies show bereaved people demonstrate higher levels of systemic inflammation, maladaptive immune cell gene expression and lower antibody response to vaccination compared with nonbereaved controls.”

Increased blood pressure, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, and heart attacks are associated with the stress of grief on the cardiovascular system. We often say that our heart aches or breaks after the death of a loved one. Indeed, there is even a condition called Takotsubo Syndrome or broken- heart syndrome in which the symptoms are similar to a heart attack, such as shortness of breath and chest pains. Research suggests that during the first three to six months after a spouse's death, the surviving spouse is not only vulnerable to developing physical problems but are also at an increased risk of death from heart disease. A recent article addressed the need for medical personnel to be more sensitive to the way they deliver the news of a death to minimize the potential risk of the bereaved having a heart attack.

For many of us, the gastrointestinal system tends to be the most reactive to stress. Most everyone has experienced “butterflies” in their stomach. Sometimes just hearing that you need to give a talk can send you running to the bathroom. Grief is an extreme stressor and if you are already sensitive to GI disturbances, the stress of grief can almost immobilize you. Mourners complain of nausea, queasiness, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, flatulence, heartburn, and acid reflux. People often say that it feels as though there is a hole or an emptiness in their stomachs. Stress can produce Irritable Bowel Syndrome and changes in appetite, whether it is eating too much or not enough.

In grief, our brain-part of the neurological system can feel like it has turned to mush. We may even begin to feel as though we have lost our minds. Our thinking becomes garbled, confused and slowed. Our concentration and attention are limited. We are distractible and have trouble planning, organizing and remembering. The result is that we become unsure of ourselves and our ability to make decisions. We may have headaches and feel as though we are in a fog.

As you can see, there is a multitude of symptoms that can impact our grieving body. Some additional symptoms that people report include general aches and pains, shortness of breath, feeling anxious and agitated, headaches, fatigue, experiencing heaviness in the body, and muscle weakness. Grief impacts our bodies in so many ways that it is almost impossible to list them all. It is important, however, to recognize the profound impact grief can have on our bodies. We focus more on our emotional pain but not our physical pain.

However, it is important to address both. We know the things we should be doing — exercising, eating right, and getting good sleep. But when we are in deep grief, these are not our top priority or even possible at times. Just getting through the day can be a challenge. In fact, it is probably one of the last things we really want to do or have the energy to do. But we can begin by walking just 10 to 15 minutes a day. It can be a leisurely stroll. It is not necessary to eat a big meal. You can eat small amounts throughout the day. Even if you do not have an appetite, be sure you keep yourself well hydrated. Eventually, you will find that you have more energy and can increase your activities. If your physical symptoms become problematic, do see your doctor.

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