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Understanding the physical symptoms of grief

Woman suffering from physical symptoms of grief

The word ‘grief’ covers a huge range of emotions, experiences and feelings after the death of a loved one. Very often, these feelings can also be physical.

The physical symptoms of grief may be less talked about that the emotional effects, but they can be just as difficult to cope with.

In his book The Idiot Brain, neuroscientist Dean Burnett explains how your body and brain physically react to traumatic loss.

“We know it causes tremendous confusion and, often physical, pain,” he says. “Grief is a trauma.”

Here we look at some of the most common physical grief symptoms, why they happen, and what you can do. Remember, always speak to your doctor if you are worried about symptoms or a symptom persists for a long time.

Fatigue and sleep problems

Sleepless woman staring at bedside clock

When you are grieving, your body is under a huge amount of stress. Producing increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, over an extended period will make you feel physically tired and sluggish.

Grief also frequently causes sleeplessness, or disrupted sleep, meaning that lack of sleep can add to stress fatigue, leaving you feeling exhausted. In turn, emotions become harder to deal with when you’re exhausted, which means you can be all too easily trapped in a vicious cycle of tiredness and stress.

Getting good, restful sleep can be key to helping you feel less fatigued – try some basic sleep remedies when counting sheep won’t cut it. However, minimizing stress and reducing your cortisol levels is also important. Practicing mindfulness for grief can help you relax and prepare your mind and body for better sleep.

Aches and pains

Grieving man suffering from headache

Aches and pains are natural side effect of stress and fatigue. In fact, some studies have shown that widowhood can actually aggravate pain in older people.

The most likely cause of feeling aches and pains after a bereavement is from tensing your muscles all the time through stress and anxiety. You may also experience stress headaches, caused by the tension in your body.

Finding ways to lower your stress levels can help you prevent and treat aches and pains. Cutting down caffeinated drinks and alcohol will also help you feel more relaxed and less prone to tension pains. If pain persists for a long time or becomes more painful, talk to your doctor.

Shortness of breath

Grieving man sitting with head in hands

Many people coping with grief experience a shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. This painful feeling may also be indicative of cardiovascular problems and it’s always wise to get pains like this checked out by your doctor.

Anxiety is a common side effect of grief, which can cause shortness of breath or lightheadedness, as you unconsciously tense up your muscles, clench your jaw, or breathe more rapidly. Anxiety can come and go, so having coping strategies in place can help when you become particularly anxious.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has a list of coping strategies for anxiety that may help.

Appetite changes

Eating a healthy meal

With increased stress hormones in your body, mealtimes and eating patterns can become irregular and unpredictable. You may find you’re eating way more than usual, or you can’t even look at food. You might forget to eat, or find that eating makes your stomach feel unsettled.

Even if your appetite is low, it’s important to try to give yourself the nutrients and vitamins you need for your body to function. This will help prevent other physical symptoms of grief by keeping your immune system strong and promoting better sleep.

Whether you’re overeating or skipping meals, you should see a doctor to discuss your eating patterns, particularly if your appetite doesn’t return to normal for a long time.

Getting sick more frequently

Grieving woman feeling ill

Research has shown that grief can lower your immune system, making you susceptible to coughs, colds and all manner of illnesses. This particularly affects older adults who have lost a loved one.

A healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables and getting enough sleep will help you maintain a balanced immune system through grief. Mindfulness practice or light exercise such as walking can help you sleep better, keeping your immune system stronger.

Find out more about the grieving process and how to cope with bereavement.