The Physical Stress of Grieving
Your body goes through some major physical reactions in response to grief, some that are even fatal. Find out more here.
The dictionary defines grief as “deep mental anguish or intense sorrow or distress”. At some point in our lives we most assuredly will experience grief in some form, whether that comes from the death of a loved one, divorce or some other traumatic loss. As some would say, that’s just the way life goes. Although we feel the emotion of loss deeply, it also affects our physical bodies in more ways than you might think.
Angels at My Door
As Elizabeth Harper, PhD explains, when we experience a loss a fight-or-flight response is triggered in our brains. In ancient times, our species learned that in order to survive, we needed to band together to search for food or to ward off enemies. To break this bond meant our own death. Even now, on some level, the sense of loss causes us to fear for our own survival. Because we cannot undo the loss, our brains are in a state of high stress producing emergency-mobilizing hormones. Common responses to grief include sobbing, sighing and crying. Other symptoms noted by psychologists include:
• lack of concentration
• loss of appetite
• insomnia or sleep disturbances
• absent mindedness
• lack of muscular strength
• tightness in the throat
• aggravated physical pain
• increased blood pressure and blood clots
Common Ways People React During Grief
Digestion, respiration and circulation can become comprised resulting in a lowering of the immune system. This is a common response in the elderly causing an increase in mortality rate.
Lack of coordination has also been cited making one more prone to accidents. Doing day-to-day tasks may become harder to cope with making one tire more easily.
Although we can’t say that mourning a loss causes diseases, research does suggest that there is a connection between certain conditions and the stress of grieving. Here are just a few:
• cardiovascular disorders
• pernicious anemia
• ulcerative colitis
• rheumatoid arthritis
• chronic depression
Ever hear someone say, he/she died of a “broken heart”? As it turns out, this isn’t very far from the truth. Experiencing extreme emotional stress can cause a chamber in the heart to balloon triggering symptoms very similar to a heart attack. Although rarely fatal, it has been known to cause death.
What You Can Do
As many would say, the passage of time helps to ease the turmoil of loss, however, if you’re in the midst of feeling as though you’re swimming upstream, there are some measures you can take that may help.
• Take some time off work (if possible)
• Surround yourself with loving and supportive people
• Be good to yourself and give yourself permission and time to mourn
• Take lots of breaks throughout the day
• Do some mild exercises like walking, swimming, yoga, etc.
• Reduce the day-to-day tasks to a manageable level
• Drink lots of water
• Reading, meditation or praying
• Talking to a professional
The above is by no means an exhaustive account on the effects of grieving on the body nor are the measures to counter them. An issue of Perspectives in Psychiatric Care describes it well: "The goal of grief is not to forget about the loss; rather, the goal is to remember the [person], understand the changes created by the loss, and determine how to reinvest in life."
For more information on this topic, you might be interested in reading the following:
1-Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Seven Choices and Tough Transitions. Both can be purchased here.
2-Healing pain: attachment, loss and grief therapy. Click here.
3- Life after loss: a personal guide to dealing with death, divorce, job change and relocation. Click here.
Good Grief! What I learned from loss by Elaine Mansfield