Losing a loved one is a devastating experience that can wreak havoc on your emotions. But the destruction that grief brings doesn’t stop there. Grief can also manifest itself physically in the body, through headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, and other discomforts.
“Grief is defined as an extreme form of sadness or an overwhelming feeling of emotional pain and suffering. It stems from the loss of a loved one, trauma due to physical or emotional abuse, and terminal illnesses of ‘self’ or family members,” says Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, a certified psychiatrist. “Grief is overwhelming sadness. Thus, it is internalized in such a way that physical symptoms can occur along with emotional ones. The physical signs of grief are more pronounced if your grief is a pathological one.”
According to Gonzalez-Berrios, pathological grief worsens with time. “It doesn’t get better naturally. It is a persistent feeling of loss, pain, suffering, and pessimism that consumes the person fully.” If you’ve recently experienced a loss and are processing grief, here are the common physical symptoms of grief, and how you can alleviate them so you can work on finding some peace.
Physical symptoms of grief
According to Carolyn Maezes, an end-of-life doula and cofounder of Earth Funeral, symptoms are tied to an increase in inflammation, stress on the immune system, and blood pressure. “In many cases, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), our ‘rest and digest’ response, has been triggered in grief. Some people will talk about the vagus or vagal nerves in particular. These are the main nerves of the PNS. This system controls our digestion, heart rate, and immune system, and it is involuntary — as in, we cannot directly control its response.”
Due to the emotional trauma and stress a person is undergoing, Gonzalez-Berrios, says “they may tend to eat less, skip meals quite often, or not eat for a few days. All these conditions will lead to several physical health issues.”
The constant feeling of heaviness in the heart may also prevent you from sleeping well, especially if you find yourself ruminating over the trauma or think about the old memories related to the deceased person. “You may find it hard to sleep or sleep might get disrupted a number of times at night,” Gonzalez-Berrios explains.
Additionally, many negative thoughts about the incident could bring up feelings of hopelessness. It’s common for people to live a more secluded and isolated life, which might lead to an unhealthy lifestyle with no exercise or bodily movements outside of their homes.
Here are some of the physical symptoms of grief:
- Intense headaches
- Shortness of breath
- General unexplained body discomfort
- Dry mouth
- Chest pain
- Sleep disturbances
- Loss of appetite
- Overeating or not eating adequately, leading to changes in body weight
- Stomach issues
- Muscular pain in neck and back
- Joint discomfort
- Tightness of muscles
“These physical symptoms are telling us that our grief is very real, and it is important to make space for it and to treat ourselves with kindness,” Maezes says.
How to alleviate your symptoms of grief
Self-care is a must when it comes to feeling better, Gonzales-Berrios says. She recommends the following to help boost your health:
- Exercise regularly. “You can join walking groups or take along your other family members for a walk or to the gym. This acts as supportive therapy to make you feel less stressed because of the loss.”
- Talk to your neighbours or visit friends.
- Stay hydrated to make your muscles feel less tight.
- Get more sleep to reduce your headaches; but if headaches are uncontrollable, see your doctor.
- Minimise digital distractions.
- Eat small meals and healthy foods to help you maintain your energy levels.
- Practice meditation to feel calm.
- Stay busy and divert your attention to productive activities. “Your idle brain shouldn’t be left alone. Try to engage in doing certain regular work or pursuing a hobby, so that you do not find the time to experience the persistent grief. Slowly, you will be able to divert your attention and focus your mind in more hopeful ways.”
“Grief is normal, we can experience it in different ways, and it never really disappears,” Maezes says. “One of my favourite analogies is that of grief being like a ball in a box with a pain button on the side. In the beginning, the ball is enormous, and it is frequently bumping into that pain button. Over time, the ball might shrink, but it is still there. It can hit the pain button seemingly at random — a song comes on the radio, a smell reminds you of your loved one, or you’re just driving down the road, and it hits you. The pain is just as intense, but it happens with less frequency. By creating healthy habits around our grief, we can be present through the process, and we can hopefully reduce the physical symptoms that arise.”
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