Losing a loved one is a devastating experience that can wreak havoc on your emotions but the destruction that pain brings does not 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 is rooted in the loss of a loved one, trauma due to physical or emotional abuse, and terminal illnesses of ‘self’ or family members,” he says. Dr. Nereida González-Berríos, a certified psychiatrist. “The pain is an overwhelming sadness. Thus, it is internalized in such a way that physical symptoms can appear along with the emotional ones. The physical signs of grief are more pronounced if your grief is pathological.”
According to González-Berrios, pathological grief worsens over time. “It doesn’t improve naturally. It is a persistent feeling of loss, pain, suffering and pessimism that consumes the person completely. If you have recently experienced a loss and are grieving, here are the common physical symptoms of grief and how you can ease them so you can work on finding some peace.
Physical symptoms of grief
According to Carolyn Maezes, a doula at the end of her life and co-founder of Earth Funeral, the symptoms are related to increased inflammation, stress on the immune system and blood pressure. “In many cases, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), our ‘rest and digest’ response, has been activated during grief. Some people will talk about the vagus or vagus nerves in particular. These are the main nerves of the PNS. This system controls our digestion, heart rate, and immune system, and it’s involuntary, meaning we can’t directly control its response.”
Due to the emotional trauma and stress a person goes through, Gonzalez-Berrios says, “they may tend to eat less, skip meals quite often, or not eat for a few days. All of these conditions will lead to various physical health problems.”
The constant heavy feeling in your heart can also keep you from getting a good night’s sleep, especially if you find yourself brooding over the trauma or dwelling on old memories related to the deceased person. “You may find it difficult to sleep or your sleep may be interrupted several times during the night,” explains Gonzalez-Berrios.
Also, many negative thoughts about the incident could lead to feelings of hopelessness. It is common for people to live a more secluded and isolated life, which could lead to an unhealthy lifestyle without exercise and body movement outside the home.
Here are some of the physical symptoms of grief:
- severe headaches
- Difficulty breathing
- Unexplained general body ailments
- Dry mouth
- Chest pain
- Sleep disorders
- loss of appetite
- Overeating or not eating properly, leading to changes in body weight
- Stomach problems
- Muscle pain in the neck and back.
- joint discomfort
- muscle tension
“These physical symptoms tell us that our grief is very real and that it’s important to make room for it and treat each other with kindness,” says Maezes.
How to ease the symptoms of grief
Self-care is a must when it comes to feeling your best, says Gonzales-Berrios. She recommends the following to help improve your health:
- Exercise regularly. “You can join walking groups or take other members of your family for a walk or to the gym. This acts as supportive therapy so you feel less stressed about the loss.”
- Talk to your neighbors or visit your friends.
- Stay hydrated so your muscles feel less tense.
- Get more sleep to reduce your headaches; but Yes headaches are uncontrollable, see your doctor.
- Minimize digital distractions.
- Eat small meals and healthy foods to help you keep your energy levels up.
- Practice meditation to feel calm.
- Stay busy and divert your attention to productive activities. “Your idle brain should not be left alone. Try to dedicate yourself to doing some regular work or pursuing a hobby, so that you don’t find the time to experience lingering pain. 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 goes away,” says Maezes. “One of my favorite analogies is that pain is like a ball in a box with a pain button on the side. At first, the ball is huge and frequently hits that pain button. Over time, the ball may shrink, but it’s still there. You can press the pain button seemingly at random—a song is playing on the radio, a smell reminds you of your loved one, or you are just driving down the road and it hits you. The pain is just as intense, but it occurs less frequently. By creating healthy habits around our grief, we can be present during the process and hopefully reduce the physical symptoms that arise.”