When we hear the word grief, we immediately think of the emotional pain that comes from a significant loss. People don’t often recognize that there are many physical symptoms related to grief and loss. It is common to feel physical pain that can affect your whole body after someone dies. It can also reduce your ability to fight off minor infections. Recognizing these symptoms and where they come from can help people better cope and heal.
Physical Symptoms of Grief on the Body
Grief researchers found evidence of physical symptoms in their research with grieving widows. They learned those who have experienced loss would often report physical pain and bodily responses, such as fatigue, and heart palpitations, which rarely turn out to be an underlying physical health condition.1
Grief experts describe grief as coming in five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) or a newer model of seven stages of grief (shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression, and the upward turn). People won’t necessarily experience all these stages, and some might revisit steps more than once, with the time experiencing each stage varying from person to person.
In these stages, each individual’s experience will be unique, but grief can encompass intense emotions, such as:
A person’s emotional health is closely associated with physical well-being when suffering extreme stress. Areas of the body like the heart, body aches, and the digestive system will be directly impacted by stress. In complicated grief and prolonged grief disorder, they can magnify these physical symptoms as these grief disorders last longer and are more intense.
Examples of the physical signs of grief include:
Nausea and an anxious stomach may be common side effects of grief, but they should also pass. People’s regular eating habits are often interrupted amid grief and life disruption, which can negatively affect the digestive system. Some forget to eat or have food aversion, while others overeat to find comfort.
Issues regarding how someone’s grief can affect digestion include:
- Stomach pain
Loss of appetite is also common. When stressed, our bodies release hormones that irritate the stomach, leading people not to eat to avoid further irritation. You may experience stomach cramps, tightness, or symptoms that mirror irritable bowel syndrome. Ongoing stress affects microbiota in the stomach, which helps the body synthesize essential nutrients from intestinal bacteria.
You may notice weight loss or weight gain while grieving. Amid grief, people lose their appetite, making simple food decisions feel overwhelming. Many people also won’t engage in regular routines, including making time for eating and cooking meals. Plus, exercise and self-care habits are often set aside while grieving, as they are not seen as a high priority. Still, taking care of yourself physically and fueling your body as you cope with the emotional turmoil created by grief is crucial.
In contrast, some people binge eat rather than cook well-balanced meals or only eat junk food to get by. Others engage in emotional eating because of stress. Weight gain is often a symptom of depression, a paramount emotion linked to grief. Try eating healthier foods that don’t require lengthy preparation—eating small amounts even if you are not hungry goes a long way.
Research has shown a connection between psychological and physical pain pathways can activate through grief, thus increasing the experience of pain. Grief can also cause headaches and chest pains. A stress hormone called Cortisol is released during stress contributing to body aches and pain. Cortisol can cause muscles to tense up when stressed, causing discomfort and sometimes pain in the neck, joints, back, and shoulders. You can also get an aching feeling in your belly. These symptoms of grief can occur during any of the stages of grief and are usually temporary.
Suppressed Immune System & Risk of Illness
Researchers studying grief have frequently examined the changes in the immune system. Factors such as increased cortisol secretions and sleep disruptions alter immune responses more in the early months of loss when grief intensity is exceptionally high. These cortical stress hormones can then go on and affect all areas of the body. Further studies revealed that grief’s neural and hormonal impacts could last years after the loss depending on the severity of grief, the person’s psychiatric state, psychological reactions, age, and gender.2
Immune cells are less protective due to these hormonal changes and can cause increased inflammation. In addition, the compromised immune system responses are less effective at fighting off potential illness while people are grieving. The immune system recovers as people recover from grief.
Sleep experts report that if sleep problems (such as insomnia) persist during grief, they can remain longer than other symptoms. Sleep disruption can contribute to complicated grief. Sleep deprivation can make the grief process more complex, leading to an increased need for therapy and possibly antidepressant medications to help cope with this problem.
This sleep research study describes grief’s impact on sleep patterns where people are more likely to have interrupted sleep because “sleep quality, onset, and maintenance may be impaired in patients with complicated grief due to nighttime rumination about the loss and dreaming of the deceased.”3
Other problems with sleep associated with grief include:
- Taking longer to fall asleep,
- Waking up for periods of time after falling asleep, and
- Spending a significant portion of time in bed, awake rather than sleeping
Extreme fatigue is another frequent symptom occurring with grief. Those who don’t typically tend to lay awake with thoughts might struggle to quiet their mind with grief. When there’s enough silence for grief to speak and grief continues to be an overwhelming experience, it can result in a loss of energy due to a combination of physical fatigue, mental exhaustion, and emotional exhaustion. Researchers have found feelings of lack of strength and exhaustion are universal, finding common experiences such as “It is almost impossible to climb up a stairway. Everything I lift feels so heavy” and “the slightest effort makes me feel so exhausted.”4
Dehydration can be a physical symptom of the grieving process. With disrupted routines, hydration can be neglected, with increased crying contributing to it as well. Furthermore, increased adrenaline levels from being scared or anxious can create a constant dry mouth.
Memory Loss & Brain Fog
Memory loss and cognitive changes referred to as brain fog or grief brain can occur after losing a significant other. Examples include driving and forgetting how you arrived at your destination or misplacing more items than usual.
As one consistently focuses on grief, sadness and loneliness can interfere with everyday tasks. Experts recommend writing things down or having reminders to help you when your memory isn’t at its best. Self-compassion is also an essential coping mechanism for when you do end up missing things. Grief brain symptoms get better with time and healing.
Broken Heart Syndrome
People often say they suffer from a “broken heart” concerning their grief. Medical experts confirm this is an actual physical phenomenon. Stressful news can alter blood pressure, pulse rates, and blood thickness, which can set the stage for a heart attack or stroke. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or “broken heart syndrome,” is a condition that mimics a heart attack with symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath. Grief experts explain that this syndrome usually occurs after intense emotional or physical stress that is reversible, not a chronic condition.5
Coping With the Effects of Grief on the Body
It can be hard to cope with the combined physical and emotional challenges of the onset of grief. However, there are things you can do to begin to manage these symptoms with healthy coping mechanisms. When you are anxious or tense, care for your body by eating well and getting rest.
Here are ten ways to help alleviate the physical effects of grief:
- Eat a well-balanced diet regularly. Stress triggers cravings for sugar and fat, leading you to reach for high-calorie and high-fat processed foods, which may only make you feel worse.
- Make time for three meals a day. Include nutritious, healthy foods in your menu. Fueling your body with a balanced, healthy diet can help alleviate some physical symptoms like digestive issues.
- Focus on good sleep habits. The impact of sleep on mental health is enormous. Avoid distractions like computers and phones in bed, keep a consistent sleep routine, and don’t drink alcohol before bed.
- Socialization is important. People tend to isolate themselves while grieving or feeling depressed. Accept invitations from trusted friends and family. Make time to spend with others, even briefly, if you don’t feel like it.
- Create opportunities for ongoing exercise. There are numerous mental health benefits of exercise. This can be done by continuing a previous exercise routine or trying new types of exercise. Even walking can increase blood flow and help with oxygen intake.
- Try mindfulness activities like meditating or doing yoga. They help you focus on the present and put you in touch with your body and mind. They increase blood flow, enhance breathing, and can lower heart rate and blood pressure.
- Consider joining support groups. Either in-person or online support groups can provide focused sessions on grief.
- Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms. Overeating, drinking, or using drugs harms the body and the mind and triggers interrupted sleep, chest tightness, and body aches.
- Seek therapy. If physical symptoms of stress continue or worsen, consider getting help from a mental health professional specializing in coping with stress and grief. This can be found in either grief counseling or grief therapy.
- Get a checkup. If your physical symptoms remain or get worse, consult your medical doctor to get a better understanding of what is causing your physical symptoms.
The physical trauma related to the death of a loved one is undeniable. The research has confirmed a relationship between grief and increased hormonal stress responses, altered sleep, impaired immunity, inflammatory cell mobilization, and platelet response.6 Just as someone will need to take breaks from physical exertion, you must find ways to take a break from your grief. Taking time to put your grief aside doesn’t mean you love the person any less. Show yourself compassion and self-patience. Know that there is a direct relationship between emotional stress and physical symptoms in your body. Practicing physical self-care techniques is an early step in helping you heal physically and emotionally from grief.