How can grief affect your physical health?

physical reactions to grief

Losing or becoming separated from a loved one can have a profound impact on a person’s emotional and physical health.

When most people think of grief, the first thing they think of is the strong emotions that come with it. Grief is not just an emotional response though; many people experience a variety of physical symptoms when they are going through grief too.

In this article, we will find out more about some of the most common physical reactions to grief and what causes them.

What is grief?

Grief is a natural response to the loss of someone or something that you love. Grief can cause overwhelmingly strong emotions, particularly those of sadness, loss, hopelessness, and anger. It’s not just the mind and emotions that are affected by grief though, grief can also cause a wide variety of physical symptoms whilst your body deals with the trauma of the loss.

Research has found that grief is not unique to humans either, grief is a universal response to loss that is found in the animal kingdom too, particularly amongst those animals that form strong social bonds.

What are the physical reactions to grief?

When we think of grief, the first thing that comes to mind may be feelings of sadness or depression, not stomach pain, tightness in the chest, or nausea.

Many people are confused and alarmed when they start experiencing physical reactions to grief, but this is a completely natural response.

Everyone experiences grief differently, and one person’s response to loss may be completely different to another’s.

Some physical symptoms that you might experience during times of grief include:

  • A hollow feeling in the stomach
  • Nausea
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Stomach pain
  • Digestive problems (constipation or diarrhoea)
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Chest pain
  • Muscular pain
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Tightness in the chest or throat
  • Dry mouth
  • Shortness of breath

Why do some people experience physical reactions to grief?

Emotional and physical pain are intrinsically linked by stress. Emotional stress activates the nervous system and increases blood pressure and adrenaline, which can cause a range of physical symptoms and medical conditions.

Many different medical studies and research have found that grief can have a significant impact on a person’s physical health as well as their emotional health.

Medical research has found that grief can cause the following physical reactions within the body:

Increases inflammation – A recent medical study into the link between grief and inflammation found that not only does grief cause more inflammation, but the more elevated the grief, the higher the levels of inflammation are. According to the study’s lead author Chris Fagundes, “previous research has shown that inflammation contributes to almost every disease in older adulthood.”

Weakens the immune system – Several medical studies have found that people experiencing grief have significantly weakened immune systems, particularly in the months immediately after the bereavement. This can cause the body to become more vulnerable to illness and infection, particularly among the elderly.

Increases blood pressure – The stress caused by grief activates the nervous system and causes the body to release stress hormones. These stress hormones cause your body to go into fight-or-flight mode, accelerating your heartbeat, dilating your bronchi, constricting your arteries, and causing high blood pressure.

Increased risk of cardiovascular problems – As we’ve already discovered, the stress caused by grief can cause blood vessels to constrict and increase heart rate and blood pressure. These changes increase an individual’s risk of experiencing cardiovascular problems like a heart attack. A 2012 study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation, found that the risk of suffering a heart attack is 21 times higher during the first day after a bereavement and six times higher during the first week.

Broken Heart Syndrome – Broken Heart Syndrome, or Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, is a condition where the heart’s left ventricle is suddenly weakened, usually caused by severe stress. Broken Heart Syndrome can sometimes occur when a person is grieving after the loss of a loved one. The condition can cause sudden chest pain that feels like a heart attack but is usually temporary and treatable.

Separation, loss, and grief training with CBAT

Here at CBAT, we run a comprehensive training course that explains what grief is, the stages of grief, and how people experience it. The course also teaches useful strategies and skills that can be used to help support those dealing with grief or separation.

For more information, or to book your place on our next separation, loss, and grief masterclass, give our team a call on 01772 816 922.