Grief Gets Physical
Grief actually causes physical changes in the body, beyond our metaphorical descriptions of the emotions. It can increase inflammation, stress the immune system, increase blood pressure, and increase the risk of blood clots. Grief can also worsen chronic medical conditions, and can actually alter the heart muscle, leading to a condition called broken heart syndrome. Research has shown that emotional pain activates the same regions of the brain as physical pain.(2) We feel emotions bodily, not just with the mind.
Understanding that grief is felt with the body as well as the mind is an important insight in managing and coping with grief. There are many physical symptoms that might be experienced during grief. Fatigue, exhaustion, and sleep disturbances are common. Some people may have lowered immunity or increased allergy symptoms. They may also be more susceptible to illness, and any chronic conditions can worsen. Digestive issues can occur including queasiness, nausea, loss of appetite, binge eating, irritable bowel syndrome, or even a hollow feeling in the stomach.(3) People with prior experience with eating disorders may find those experiences resurface during the grief process.
Grief can cause or aggravate heart problems. People may feel chest pain or tightness, shortness of breath, and may be at increased risk for heart attack and broken heart syndrome. Some people experience signs of anxiety like restlessness, pacing, clammy hands and feet, numbness in the extremities, and panic attacks.(3) Heart symptoms and anxiety symptoms can sometimes overlap, so it’s important to know of any pre-existing conditions or predispositions.
People may feel body aches and pains including back pain, joint pain, neck pain or stiffness, heaviness in the limbs, headaches or migraines, and as mentioned before, chest pain. Some other common grief reactions are decreased ability to focus and slow response time which can affect driving ability. It is also not uncommon for people to have unexpected emotional responses while behind the wheel.(4) Being mindful of these possible reactions while driving is an important consideration for safety.
Because the cause of these physical symptoms is from the grief response rather than from an actual illness, the symptoms usually resolve on their own as the person processes their emotions. However, there are some strategies to help manage these expressions of grief. First, listen to your body and practice healthy habits like eating well and at regular times, staying hydrated, and getting enough exercise and sleep.(5) This can be challenging, especially at the beginning when grief is most powerful. Do the best you can, and be kind to yourself. As you keep trying to eat, drink, exercise, and sleep, it will get easier with time.
Talk to your friends and family about your feelings. It can be helpful to seek out others who have had similar experiences, and support groups are available as well.(5) Talking about your feelings helps to process them. Acknowledging them and allowing yourself to feel them will lessen the intensity of these bodily sensations.
Learn to keep yourself centered while feeling these emotions. Breathe, lean into your feelings, and trust your inner resources.(5) Breathing slowly and deeply through the nose helps to calm the nervous system. Breathing through emotions decreases their intensity without repressing them, which can be harmful. Allow yourself to really feel the emotions; notice the physical sensations; be curious about them, and acknowledge them consciously. Trust yourself. Remember other difficult emotional experiences that you have been able to navigate in the past and remind yourself that you can navigate this emotional journey too.
Practice mindfulness.(5) Consider meditation and/or yoga. There are many resources online or check for studios in your community. If yoga and meditation are not your thing, go for walks, preferably in a park or other space where you can connect to nature. Or even just sit outside in your backyard and breathe mindfully. Pace yourself, the destination isn’t as important as the journey. Be kind and accept yourself, wherever you are in the process.
Imagine a new life.(4) Life has forever been altered by your loss, yet this presents an opportunity to make positive changes. After my divorce, I remember feeling a sense of exhilaration when I realized that I now had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I could create a new future, a new life. Be creative and imaginative about all the possibilities your loss presents. Perhaps, you choose to do something that acts as a memorial.
If symptoms don’t begin to dissipate with time, be willing to seek professional support.(4) Talk with your doctor or find a therapist. As discussed, grief is multifaceted and complicated. Sometimes we have several traumatic events or losses in a short period of time. This can compound the grief, making it more intense and more challenging. It may feel overwhelming, but there are professionals that can help you get through it.
Recognizing the physical properties of grief is often overlooked during the grief process, and yet knowing that grief is felt within the body helps normalize any symptoms that are experienced. It is helpful to know that grief is physical.
1. Chris Raymond, “How to Cope with the Physical Effects OMG Grief,” verywellmind.com
2. Stephanie Hairston, “How Grief Shows Up in Your Body,” webmd.com
3. “When Grief Gets Physical: Dealing with Physical Grief Symptoms,” whatsyourgrief.com
4. Good Therapy Staff, “When Loss Hurts: 6 Physical Effects of Grief,” goodtherapy.com
5. Ronald Alexander, “6 Mindful Strategies for Recovering From Loss,” mindful.org