“I don’t know why they call it heartbreak. It feels like every part of my body is broken too.” –Chloe Woodward. Grief hurts, both emotionally and physically. The common physical symptoms of grief can be linked to one source: inflammation.
The most common physical symptoms of grief can be linked to increased inflammation in the body.
The emotional response to loss triggers inflammation.
Inflammation increases physical pain and changes sleep patterns.
Negative cardiac and immune responses can also result from increased inflammation.
Daily self-care can help mitigate the negative physical symptoms of grief.
As a result, there are several uncomfortable and even harmful body responses. There are steps we can take to improve the physical experience of grief.
A physical response to grief
Life happens and endings are the saddest part. With the death of a loved one, we speak of being heartbroken. When asked how we are during our bereavement, we might share that our stomach hurts because we miss them so much. Grief can manifest as visceral pain - sometimes it hurts, literally.
It is well-documented that mental and physical health are interrelated. Grief is not only mental anguish but can be intensely physical. The negative physical symptoms of grief are heightened, especially in older adults.
Like grief, the human body is complex. When one system becomes maladapted, it can trigger other systems to dysregulate. Because every system is intimately linked, it can snowball into a host of growing ailments that are difficult to resolve. However, studies all seem to point to the root cause of the common physical symptoms of grief: inflammation.
The relationship between inflammation and grief
After the sustained adrenaline surges that got you through the funeral, the family visits, and the unexpected landslide of post-mortem paperwork lessen, the comedown is hard. All the cortisol built up in the body, produced by the adrenal gland, is now hurting you by causing inflammation. This leads to negative ramifications elsewhere in the body.
Inflammation is scientifically proven to be linked to the sensation of devastation felt in the body during the bereavement period. Inflammation increases physical pain and causes sleep disturbances. The global inflammatory response can also negatively affect the cardiovascular and immune systems.
Increased generalized pain when grieving
The physical pain center in the brain is triggered by emotional pain. One study showed an increase of physical pain during the first year after the loss of a spouse to be prevalent in just over 56% of all widows reporting.
Aching muscles, back pain, abdominal pain, or headaches can be a constant companion. And increased pain doesn’t help you get the quality sleep you may desperately need.
Sleep disruptions during periods of grief
You would think that the mental and physical exhaustion experienced while grieving would be remedied by getting some good sleep. Unfortunately, restful sleep may be elusive.
Severe fatigue can lead to the overuse of caffeine. Most people know caffeinated drinks might make you feel awake and energetic for a time, but too much can create difficulties with getting quality rest.
Maybe what you thought would help you relax and ease the pain of grief - an alcoholic beverage or three - ends up disrupting your sleep rhythms. Alcohol in any amount changes sleeps quality.
When you are grieving, a regular exercise regime can take a back seat. Lack of exercise and all its beneficial outcomes can lead to stiffness, pain, and an inability to sleep well.
You might feel exhausted but fear going to sleep. This is common among people who are grieving. Worrying about waking up and remembering they’re gone all over again can feel overwhelming.
Cardiovascular risks of grief
The ways psychosocial stresses affect the physical heart are complex. The acute stress of loss may be short-lived but powerful. Global inflammation contributes to cardiac concerns.
Increased blood pressure can cause headaches and dizziness. A concurrent high heart rate from the triggering of the fight-or-flight nervous system can lead to adrenal fatigue, sustained hypertension, and possibly blood clots.
The risk of a heart attack after a significant person in your life dies increases. One study uncovered the fact that the number of heart attacks surges in the first days and weeks after the loss.
An emotionally-broken heart can succumb to lose in what is known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome”. While somewhat rare, it can show up spontaneously in persons with no previous cardiac issues. The left side of the heart enlarges causing the heart to fail. It can be deadly, especially for those individuals with previous heart conditions.
Lowered immunity during the grieving process
Inflammation triggered by the chronic stress of grief lowers our immunity to microbes in the environment. This leaves the bereaved open to infection. Grief can make you sick. Whether it’s a serious viral infection or a common cold, being ill is the last thing anyone in mourning needs.
Self-care tips for a healthier bereavement
Remember, these suggestions are meant to be supportive of the grieving process. Do not place pressure on yourself to integrate them quickly. Pick an easy step first, then add another when you feel ready. Taking care of yourself daily, even in small ways, may lead to improved physical well-being.
Take some alone time to simply sit and breathe deeply. Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth can reduce the negative effects of inflammation.
Enjoy some time outside in nature. Watch a sunset or the neighborhood birds. Stand outside in the rain.
Spend time with a beloved pet. This is a proven way to lower high blood pressure.
Lower body inflammation and boost your immune system with supplements like Vitamin C, zinc, Vitamin D, fish oil, and garlic capsules. Take as directed.
Drink plenty of water. Herbal teas count towards staying well-hydrated.
Avoid or reduce caffeine and alcohol.
Rest your body in a reclined position throughout the day with your eyes closed. It’s ok if you don’t fall asleep.
Eat small portions of healthy foods when you are up to it; avoid fast foods and sugary or high-salt junk food.
Take short walks. Simple stretching can relieve stress as well.
Avoid TV and cell phone screens right before bed. This can help with returning to a more restful sleep routine.
Take a warm bath or shower at bedtime.
If you aren’t a “hugger,” become one. Hugs release feel-good hormones and lower blood pressure.
Thomas Lynch said, “If we love, we grieve.” And when we grieve, our bodies can pay a price. With some simple proactive interventions, you can lighten the heavy load of loss, alleviating the negative physical symptoms of grief.