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October 7, 2019 Beyond The Dash

The Health Drawbacks of Ignoring Grief

It's more than just mental—grief can make you sick

The Health Drawbacks of Ignoring Grief
Grief is often thought of as an emotional health issues, but did you know it can lead to physical health issues as well? (Getty Images)

If you think you are suffering physical effects resulting from grief, we strongly recommend you discuss them with your doctor. This article is intended for informational purposes only, and does not take the place of medical advice from your physician.

Did you know that grief can manifest in the form of physical symptoms? While many people consider bereavement to be an affliction of the heart and mind, those who are suffering from a recent loss will tell you that it's much more than that.

Humans are hard-wired for connection

Everyone needs connection. Studies have shown time and again just how important human contact is. When a loved one passes away, your connection with them is ripped away. Though you may find ways to connect with them as your move through grief, that relationship will never be the same.

Physiologically, your brain reacts to emotional pain exactly as it responds to physical pain:

"Research shows that emotional pain activates the same regions of the brain as physical pain. This may be why painkilling drugs ranging from opioids to Tylenol have been shown to ease emotional pain."

—Stephanie Hairston, WebMD

Grief vs. Pathological Grief

While there's no such thing as 'normal' grief, there are a range of grief symptoms that fall in the typical range for most grievers. These symptoms are still completely awful. Even healthy grief is uncomfortable, out of control, maddening and emotionally tormenting. That's just how it is. 

However, grief can easily move into the unhealthy range. This kind of complicated grief can happen when normal grief symptoms are prolonged, relentless and continuously intense. Grief may be considered pathological when it becomes impossible to complete 

What are the symptoms of grief?

Grief can manifest in the form of physical symptoms. Here is a list of some of the most common ways grief can get physical for those who are suffering:

  • Anxiety

Panic attacks, persistent worry, fear and nervousness tend to go hand-in-hand with grief. While it's normal to feel symptoms of anxiety at stressful points in your life, and during grief, prolonged anxiety can lead to an anxiety disorder that persists beyond the bereavement period. Over time, anxiety may snowball into more intense or chronic anxiety, and can also take its toll on the body in other ways.

  • Depression

The word depression may refer to both a mood and a disorder. However, frequent or prolonged periods of depressed moods can turn into a depression disorder over time. Feeling low, hopeless and sad are all parts of healthy grief. When these symptoms never ease up, or continue to get worse, it's important to talk to a doctor as soon as possible. 

Depression in grief may also lead to self-harm or suicidal thoughts if left untreated. Make sure to talk to a qualified counselor or your family doctor if depression leads to suicidal thoughts.



  • Digestive problems

Stress is hard on the body. People who live in a constant state of worry and fear often develop secondary health issues. Nausea, gastrointestinal issues, stomach pain and loss of appetite affect many people who are grieving. 

  • Addiction

Turning to substances like alcohol or drugs in the aftermath of a loss can be risky. For most people, drinking during bereavement can be a respite from the intensity of grief. However, this respite can become habit-forming, leading to more serious issues of addiction and dependence. 

  • Difficulty focusing 

Particularly in the first days and weeks following a death, grief can be surreal, dreamlike and impairing. It's as close as many folks will get to a psychological crisis. Focusing on anything other than the death may be impossible at times. The person grieving may ruminate on everything surrounding the loss, including details of the illness, violence, or the people who were there. Death scenes may replay in the form of flashbacks. 

  • Exhaustion

People who are in the throes of intense grief are using more energy to perform basic tasks. Racing thoughts, emotional stress, bouts of depression and anxiety, and moving through the stages of grief make every moment difficult. During grief, and especially after the funeral services have concluded, many grievers find themselves unable to function due to exhaustion. Taking a rest day is a good form of self-care that can help restore energy. However, persistent exhaustion can indicate more complicated forms of bereavement. If the person grieving is frequently unable to get out of bed and perform their everyday tasks, they may be suffering from chronic exhaustion or depression.

  • Insomnia

Despite the physical toll, grieving people may find it difficult to restore their energy due to insomnia. When the body enters survival mode, it may trigger anxiety and hypervigilance in order to stay safe. Because the brain processes emotional and physical danger in the same way, it may see sleep as too vulnerable. Many people experience insomnia intermittently in the course of their lives, but if the problem persists following a loss, it may be a physical symptom of grief.

Insomnia can plague people who are grieving, even if they are exhausted. (Getty Images)

  • Low immunity

All kinds of stress suppress the immune system. Changing jobs, moving, the pressures of school, divorce, dealing with an injury and losing a loved one are some of the most stressful life events a person can experience. Right at the top of the list is the death of a loved one, especially a spouse or a child.

When faced with extreme stress, the body's immune system weakens, leading to more and worse instances of physical ailments. Being sick more can add further stress, often contributing to a vicious cycle of persistent health issues.

  • Sensitivity to noise, light and touch

People who are coping with a recent death sometimes face physical overstimulation, leading to tactile and noise sensitivity. 

  • Cardiovascular troubles

Did you know that it is actually possible to die of a broken heart? Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as broken-heart syndrome, is a condition that is triggered by sudden or extreme stress. Commonly mistaken for a heart attack, takotsubo cardiomyopathy is marked by sharp chest pains, shortness of breath, and fainting. When a patient suffering from broken-heart syndrome is examined, they will show none of the signs of blocked arteries, and often recover if given proper treatment. It is rare for this condition to lead to death. 

Cardiovascular problems are a long-term side effect of persistent grief. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as broken-heart syndrome, can happen in the immediate aftermath of a death. (Getty Images)

The stress of a loss can also affect your heart over time. People who experience complicated grief may experience cardiovascular problems later in life.

Dealing with bereavement 

Mental health issues have long been misunderstood and stigmatized by both professionals and members of the public. The connection between emotional trauma, mental health and physical health is better researched today. More and more, people are valuing good emotional health and looking for ways to deal with issues like grief head-on. 

The connection between mental and physical health is undeniable. Remember to check in with your own state of mind regularly, and seek professional help if symptoms of grief persist or worsen. 

Share your feelings with trusted people in your life. Finding support can help you process your grief in a productive way. (Getty Images)

Sharing your grief with loved ones, friends and others who have experienced loss is a good way to combat persistent grief. Connection, not isolation, is the best medicine when a loved one has passed away. Talk to friends, find a grief counselor, discuss in online forums or community grief support groups, and don't be afraid to reach out when you need help. 

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