While we’re all familiar with the emotional aspects of grief – feeling sad, angry, shocked, relieved – the body can also respond physically to loss. For many people, the physical response often shows up as feeling extremely tired, but there are many other possible responses. Often, the more intense your emotional grief, the more likely you are to respond physically. We’re going to review 8 of those responses today, but first, let’s talk about what’s going on with your body.
What’s Happening to My Body?
Every system of the body is connected in some way or another. That’s why the grief and stress you feel can begin to take a physical toll on your body. Just like work-related stress can begin to manifest in sleepless nights, headaches, racing thoughts, and heart palpitations, grief-related stress can do the same.
It will take time for your mind and emotions to come to grips with the loss you’ve suffered, and while you process your feelings, your body may also take a hit. The type of physical symptom you experience and its severity will vary from person to person. For some, the physical symptoms will include exhaustion and that’s it. For others, it might include exhaustion along with several other things.
Additionally, if you already have an existing physical condition, grief stress may exacerbate it. For example, if you have high blood pressure on a regular day, it may be harder to regulate while you’re experiencing deep grief. If you notice changes in a pre-existing condition, make sure to speak with your doctor and get the medical care you need.
For now, let’s take a look at 8 physical responses to grief that you may experience.
Tiredness and exhaustion are perhaps the most common physical responses to grief. Your thoughts and feelings, not to mention any crying, are sapping your energy. You may not feel like going about your normal daily activities and need naps throughout the day. This is completely normal. Make sure you take time to rest because pushing your body too hard can lead to lowered immunity and make you susceptible to getting sick.
2. Lowered Immunity
Speaking of the immune system, grief boosts your production of stress hormones, leading to more inflammation and increased risk of illness. Paired with fatigue, it’s not uncommon for people to catch a cold or get an infection during times of grief. In a 2014 research study, it was found that older adults experiencing grief, specifically the loss of a spouse, were particularly prone to infection. So, make sure you take care of yourself, even if you don’t feel like it.
3. Brain Fog
Another common physical symptom, brain fog is your mind’s way of protecting you. As your body responds to grief – releasing stress hormones, feeling exhausted – your brain knows that you are becoming overwhelmed. Whether it’s helpful or not, your brain dulls a bit and tries to decrease the sharpness of your feelings. Brain fog typically goes away, usually after you’ve had a little time to process everything. For more information about brain fog, go to “Can Grief Make You Forget Things?”
4. Heart Health Concerns
Unfortunately, the release of stress hormones not only weakens the immune system, it also affects the cardiovascular system. One study found that the risk of heart attack increases 21-fold within 24 hours of a loved one’s death (and declines steadily each day after that). This is why there are instances when two family members may die in succession, like when Debbie Reynolds died of a heart-related complication just one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher. If you experience chest pain, shortness of breath, or other symptoms, seek medical assistance right away.
5. Digestive Issues & Weight Changes
When grief hits, it usually disrupts your normal eating habits, which can lead to digestive issues. Whether you’re dealing with constipation, diarrhea, stomach pain, or nausea, it could be related to changes in your routine, stress, or even anxiety. You may be eating out more, consuming junk food, binge eating, or skipping your regular exercise. In addition to affecting your digestion, these changes can affect your weight as well.
On the other hand, your response to stress may be to undereat rather than to overeat. If this is the case, then you may see weight loss occur. Plus, if you already have a sensitive stomach and carry stress there, you may see an increase in digestive issues when you’re grieving. Just remember, feed your body well and stay away from spicy, acidic, or exotic foods that may stress your system.
6. General Pain or Discomfort
Whether it’s feeling sick to your stomach or dealing with a migraine, your body may respond to grief stress with general pain and discomfort. Ranging from headaches, body aches, and muscle pain, to heaviness in the limbs or a racing heart, the symptoms vary from person to person. You can use over-the-counter pain meds, cold compresses, and other aids to help manage any discomfort, but if you are concerned, seek out a doctor to get a full diagnosis.
7. Sleeping Issues
Sleep is essential when your body is in distress, but it needs to be a healthy balance. For some, insomnia becomes an issue, while for others, oversleeping becomes a concern. Getting too much or too little sleep can sap your energy, decrease your cognitive functioning, and slow down recovery. The first few days, you may sleep more, but after that, try to get yourself back on a normal routine. Your body will eventually bounce back, and your energy will return. For more tips, read “Sleeping Tips for the Grieving.”
Crying is a natural response to grief and loss, but it can also lead to dehydration or dry mouth. Don’t try to stifle your crying – let it all out – but do make sure that you are staying hydrated. With everything going on, your body needs extra liquids to maintain a healthy balance. If you can, limit alcohol and caffeinated drinks and focus on getting your electrolytes.
While this list is fairly comprehensive, you may experience something not listed here. Don’t panic. Instead, if you become concerned, make an appointment with your doctor. They can help settle your fears, or if needed, properly diagnose you. We’ve all Googled symptoms before, and it’s rarely helpful. Get with a professional so they can help you feel better faster.
How Long Do Physical Symptoms Last?
In short, it depends. For the majority of people, the strength of grief lessens over time, and the sharpness subsides. And certainly, it’s not long before your body stops releasing so many stress hormones. Much of the time, physical symptoms subside within a few days to a few months. However, if the symptoms intensify or don’t resolve within 6-8 months, it’s time to speak with a therapist or a doctor.
If physical symptoms are present for so long, complicated grief becomes a concern. With complicated grief, your feelings intensify over time, the loss takes center stage in your life, and there are feelings of intense sorrow and a tendency to withdraw and isolate. Should it get to this point, it’s best to seek out professional help because it’s gone beyond something you can tackle on your own. To learn more about complicated grief, go to “What is Complicated Grief?”
Tips for Coping with the Physical Symptoms of Grief
Before we look at a few suggestions for coping with grief, it’s important to remember that grief feelings aren’t always associated with the death of a person. It could be receiving a serious diagnosis, losing a job, ending a relationship or friendship, experiencing financial difficulty, or living through a natural disaster.
Regardless of the source of your grief, here are a few tips to help you take care of your body through the grieving process:
- Exercise regularly
- Stay hydrated
- Eat healthy foods daily
- Get enough sleep
- Go outside
- Take over-the-counter meds, as needed
In the early days, it may be difficult to think about self-care. To make things simple, just take each day as it comes, incorporating these practices as best you can. Over time, as you process your feelings and do the work of grief, you will find a way to move forward and enjoy life again.