When Loss Hurts: 6 Physical Effects of Grief

Women leans on bridge railing with her head down.If you have ever lost a loved one, you have most likely experienced grief. Grief is an intense feeling of sadness or sorrow. It is generally brought on by the loss of something or someone. The end of a long-term relationship, like a divorce, or the death of a family member may cause grief.

Grief is not always thought of as a full-body experience. But just as grief can affect mental health, it can also have physical aspects. Physical symptoms may not come with every kind of grief. But intense grief—for example, that caused by the death of a child or partner—can bring about side effects that may feel more physical than anything else.

Grief can trigger a number of mental health symptoms and issues. These might include depression, loneliness, and anxiety. The line between the grief period and a mental health issue may be hard to define. It can help to consult a trusted therapist or counselor if you are having trouble with grief or similar feelings.

Knowing which symptoms of grief to watch for may allow you to soothe and address any effects you experience.

1. Heart Problems

Heart problems can be brought on by intense stress in a variety of situations. But there are particular heart risks associated with grief. One study found the death of a loved one to increase a person’s chance of a heart attack.

There’s also a specific temporary syndrome brought on by the death of a loved one called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome.” Broken heart syndrome is caused by a disruption in the blood being pumped to one section of the heart. Because of this, it mimics the effects of a heart attack—chest pain and shortness of breath—but is temporary. People with broken heart syndrome can undergo treatment for it. They may also choose to wait for the syndrome to reverse itself in a few weeks.

It is important to note that if you experience chest pain or shortness of breath over a long period of time, you should consult your doctor for deeper causes. This is true for any other severe or long-lasting physical effects of grief.

2. Lowered Immunity

Some people catch colds or come down with the flu during times of immense stress. They may notice they are more susceptible to these same ailments during a period of intense grieving. This is because in adults, grief can lower the immune system.

A 2014 study found that older adults experiencing grief, specifically due to the loss of a spouse, could not maintain a stress hormone balance. As a result, they experienced reduced neutrophil function. This means that during the grieving process, older adults are less likely to produce some types of white blood cells, leaving them prone to infections.

3. Body Aches and Pains

Aches and pains are a common physical symptom of grief. Grief can cause back pain, joint pain, headaches, and stiffness. The pain is caused by the overwhelming amount of stress hormones being released during the grieving process. These effectively stun the muscles they contact. Stress hormones act on the body in a similar way to broken heart syndrome. Aches and pains from grief should be temporary. If they persist over the long term, consult your physician.

4. Digestive Issues

The digestive tract can be sensitive to times of intense stress. It can be all too common to seek comfort in food during stressful periods or to experience a queasy stomach when anxious. Grief inspires these symptoms and others, such as a loss of appetite, binge eating, nausea, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Knowing these symptoms are caused by grief can help alleviate them. When you feel an urge to eat when sad or notice you haven’t eaten all day because of that same sadness, it can be a good indicator to call a trusted friend or licensed mental health professional to set up an appointment.

5. Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Overeating or not eating enough during the grieving process is only one unhealthy coping mechanism people may experience. Some can be more harmful than others. People may turn to alcohol or cigarettes, the overuse of which can have long-lasting effects on the liver and lungs.

Others may engage in self-harming behavior, drug use, or other high-risk behaviors. All of these coping mechanisms can have intensely damaging, long-lasting effects on the body and brain. If you find yourself frequently engaging in behaviors like these to cope with grief, it is crucial you reach out to a trusted friend or licensed professional for help.

6. Sleep Problems and Fatigue

A 2017 study found that spouses who were bereaved by suicide had a higher risk of developing sleep issues. Sleep is supposed to be when the body and brain rest and repair themselves. Sleep disruption during grief can be especially frustrating. It can be debilitating to constantly feel both sad, anxious, and exhausted. Insomnia can be a common occurrence in those who are grieving. But it should only be temporary. A continued inability to sleep regularly or feel rested should be reported to your doctor.

When Grief Becomes a Cycle

Many people aspire to finish grieving and move on with their lives in a healthy way. But some may find this is harder than expected. It is possible for grief to become a cycle. Sometimes memories of loss or of a lost loved one may light up the reward receptors in the brain. This means that moving on or “letting go” can be much more difficult. Those memories and the grieving process can feed into an addictive feeling.

A cycle of grief can take a toll on a person’s physical and mental health. Continuing the grieving process for a long period of time means a person’s risk for long-term health problems is increased. What could have been a short-term symptom—chest pain, stomach aches, or sleep problems, for example—can manifest in much more serious ways. These could include heart disease, eating disorders, or chronic fatigue.

Managing Grief

It is important to seek help if you need it to regulate your mind-body connection. What gets thrown out of whack during the grieving process can, in fact, get back on track.

Building a healthy routine can be a first step to mitigating some of the physical symptoms of grief. Regular exercise and a nutritious diet can help with pain, heart risks, digestive issues, and sleep patterns. Talking about grief with family and friends or a licensed mental health professional can help address the grief directly. Doing so may also foster the development of healthy coping skills.

It is important to remember you are not alone. Asking for help may an important step during the grieving process. It can take time to heal, and that is normal. Grief cannot be rushed. But with love and compassion from family, and the help of a therapist, grief can come to an end.

References:

  1. Addicted to grief? Chronic grief activates pleasure areas of the brain. (2008, June 22). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080620195446.htm
  2. Broken heart syndrome. (2016, November 5). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/broken-heart-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20354617
  3. Erlangsen, A., et al. (2017). Association between spousal suicide and mental, physical, and social health outcomes. JAMA Psychiatry, 74(5), 456-464. doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.0226
  4. Gahles, N. (2016, November 22). The physical trauma of grief and loss. Retrieved from https://www.integrativepractitioner.com/topics/news/body-trauma-grief
  5. Mostofsky, E., Maclure, M., Sherwood, J. B., Tofler, G. H., Muller, J. E., & Mittleman, M. A. (2012, January 23). Risk of acute myocardial infarction after death of a significant person in one’s life. Circulation, 3(125), 491-496. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.111.061770
  6. Qin, H., Cheng, C., Tang, X., Bian, Z. (2014, October 21). Impact of psychological stress on irritable bowel syndrome. World Journal of Gastroenterology, 20(39), 126-131. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v20.i39.14126
  7. Vitlic, A., Khanfer, R., Lord, J. M., Carroll, D., Philips, A. C. (2014, August 29). Bereavement reduces neutrophil oxidative burst only in older adults: role of the HPA axis and immunesenescence. Immunity & Ageing, 11(13). doi: 10.1186/1742-4933-11-13

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  • 28 comments
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  • Courage

    September 1st, 2018 at 1:54 AM

    Please be careful in the judgement: “addicted to grief.” That’s hopping aboard the “grief is a mental illness” express. Grief compounds over time, and many people, especially as we age, are subject to one loss after the other — multiple deaths, health, employment, dreams, divorce, displacement, etc. Everyone has a saturation point, after which mourning can become chronic. It’s not an addiction. ~ We are also living in an age of unprecedented social, relational, cultural, and ecologic destruction. Is it any wonder that we may feel unrelenting grief? ~ Your article cites “heart problems” as the first item in the list of concerns…That underscores the gravity of the problem. Please don’t insult people who are in deep grief by suggesting that they are “addicted to grief.” Thank you …

  • Stephen

    June 24th, 2019 at 7:43 AM

    Thank you for writing that, just as I started to question myself with ‘am I addicted, am I feeding my own problem’, I came across your comment. Yes, it does imply that it’s some form of self indulgence, it isn’t. It’s inescapable, I’m 2 and a half years past a relationship that broke down, I feel like I’m being consumed by my own body,eaten alive tbh.

  • K.

    September 3rd, 2019 at 7:17 AM

    good response to “addicted to grief”, which IMO is an overly clinical description to an emotional condition. Also your note of our society is dead on. Insensitivity and downright cruelty is common these days. Reoccurring grief can be triggered at any time, which is not an addiction, its basically PTSD to life. Addiction, insinuates that the person actually likes what they are going thru, which is absolutely incorrect.

  • HB

    September 12th, 2019 at 7:45 PM

    Thank you; yes, one thing after another; and our times are much different with all these rapid changes in every level.

  • Sparki2003

    September 27th, 2019 at 4:59 PM

    Yes, I agree with you completely, regarding “being addicted to grief”. In my case, there have been 6 very special people in my life have passed away within 3.5 years of the others, including my beloved Mom. I think that this would be considered to be “Complicated Grief”, Never having any sort of “addiction”! I have yet to find a therapist who is capable of understanding what I may have been feeling during these past several years. However, God willing, my newest counselor will be more helpful for me!

  • Solid

    March 4th, 2020 at 9:16 AM

    Similarly, why did you come? Does he mean pain? Every day I feel his legs and arms … his legs. … … … Every participant dies, his body is lost. Do you feel offended there? ?

  • Sharon W.

    November 15th, 2018 at 4:47 PM

    You got me when you said that grief can cause you to lose your appetite due to intense stress. This is probably the reason why my sister has lost so much weight when her husband passed away. She said that she couldn’t find a reason to keep herself healthy, so I’ll be sure to find a funeral home that offers a grief support.

  • Marie

    September 12th, 2019 at 3:36 PM

    Need energy

  • Theresa

    September 17th, 2019 at 11:04 AM

    2 years! I am still knocked sideways with a 20 year loss of my partner. many don’t understand that the loss through a (unexpected) divorce especially where there are children, is WORSE than losing to death (and I have lost close family to death.) the dead person is dead. no option but to deal with that. The person I still “miss” appears over and over in my real life and never is the pain resolved or dissolved at being dumped for the ten year younger model with no children and a nice house to sell on and share with him. life is tough! all the therapies from hypnosis, yoga and cognitive therapy work temporarily – but dissolve into frustration and anger!

  • Sima

    January 6th, 2020 at 12:09 AM

    Thanks for writing this great article! It’s very informative, and you included some great points to the equally great article.

    Regards

  • Melissa

    January 31st, 2020 at 10:10 PM

    We were knocked over and still are by the sudden death of our beautiful son Jake who was 23 years old. 18 long months and we still dont know what to do. We have other kids of course and try very hard to get through each day but it is so hard. A complicated grief yes but I am also so sorry for others who have their own grief and it shouldnt be ignored that’s for sure. I just wish we could turn back the clock, always thinking what if ….. missing him is an understatement. The heart break is very real…. Melissa Jakes Mother

  • Ann

    May 17th, 2020 at 4:13 PM

    Look at me, almost 3 years, and I am still not believing that our daughter died along with two other people. She was 29 years old. Through mental illness, an individual killed 3 people.

  • Solid

    March 4th, 2020 at 9:16 AM

    Similarly, why did you come? Does he mean pain? Every day I feel his legs and arms … his legs. … … … Every participant dies, his body is lost. Do you feel offended there? ?

  • Zacharia

    March 4th, 2020 at 9:32 AM

    “That’s the cause of depression.” Under the influence of mental disorders ”and their imaging. Many people’s stressful situations, especially death, health, the need for dreaming of marriage in the body, have a significant impact on older people. like depression. brand new, discontinued, developer. Human and environmental problems are growing. Your account is on the first list of vulnerable companies, it hurts …

  • Zacharia

    March 4th, 2020 at 9:37 AM

    You find a conversation with stress-induced sadness that can lead to fat loss. This is probably because the husband lost a lot of fat to his brother after his brother died. I shed tears because he said that I could not find a reason to stay healthy.

  • Judith

    June 7th, 2020 at 7:34 AM

    40 years ago my husband of 22 years 9 months died of a heart attack. I remarried within a year. My 3 college age children became upset. I lost them. I have begun to cry all the time. I miss him so.

  • Diana

    June 23rd, 2020 at 9:09 PM

    8 years since the dearest one I ever knew passed from this world and from our shared life. I did quite well the first few years but it has got harder as I get older. I chat to people, and friendly, not really “lonely” in everyday life, but lonely deep inside. I am not well now either. Happy memories of days gone by, and the sweet heartfelt connection with my loved one are not an addiction. I look on that as a contact with my Soul, and the Soul of my loved one. Without those things life is cold indeed. So while I am able to get on with life, no I can’t “move on” whatever that means. I would go to therapy except I am pretty sure a therapist wouldn’t have a clue about our spiritual bond and connection, or about the negative and positive dynamics in my emotions and body. While yes -it brings me joy, it also brings me tears, and living life without them isn’t easy. So I have no choice but to journey through this myself.
    Connection with a loved one who has passed isn’t an addiction. It’s love that never dies, while one person is left to struggle through on earth alone trying their best without their beloved.

  • Steve

    August 12th, 2020 at 8:20 AM

    My wife of 54 years passed 7 months ago. Since then I have not eaten as I should (no appetite), have been tired and sad. Any thing that reminds me of her triggers the tears. Not sure that it is that important for a 75 year old to think about life in general.

  • maureen

    November 16th, 2020 at 12:47 AM

    Death stings so hard and i’ve just realized no words can actually comfort you, you just live day by day with their memories lingering inside you, i lost my hubby two months ago and i cant seem to accept that he is actually really gone, he was such a strong loving adorable man i’ve ever had and i don’t even know how to move on and tears keep rolling every time i think about him….its so so hurtful and complicated and grief is very personal only you know what you are going through in the end. I miss him dearly

  • charlotte

    November 20th, 2020 at 4:10 AM

    Oh Maureen
    I know exactly how you feel. I lost my hubby suddenly on holiday in Cornwall with our touring caravan and dachshund. I went away with him and came back a week later without him, he followed in a body bag and I cannot get over it. This was 26th September and I buried my husband on 7th October 2020. I struggle with pain in my body, sleepless and unsettled nights and loneliness altho I have two wonderful sons. Do email me if you would like a friend. charlotte@coastbusiness.co.uk

  • wonzer bradley

    October 1st, 2021 at 6:35 AM

    Yes. I am fairly new at all ot this. I lost my wife after 40 years of marriage. And after 43 years of actually knowing her… She was only 60 years old. We are actually the same age….She was my high school sweet heart. The love of my life…I have never had high blood pressure and elevated heart rate in my life until the traumatic experience occured… My only consolation are the scriptures…. Counselling and consulting with the one who created us and knows us much better than we ourselves is the wisest choice we can make…..The one who ordained these relationships from the begining.. The God of all comfort. The all wise God….Yes it is still difficult at times for me. There are so many things that trigger memories of her… Even though she passed only a little over a month ago. Yet I am determined in the words of Jesus that ” this too shall pass “. I began to recognize that the grief had begun to try and take a toll on my physical body… Elevated blood pressure and heart rate. And lack of sleep. All detrimental to my overall good health…God told me that he knows how much I loved her but that He loved her much more than I could ever imagine…. He says yes grieve but not as those who have no HOPE ! I was on a mountain trip recently and God gave me a word…Its in Psalms 42:11…. Our health is tied to this HOPE….People Gods ways and thoughts are as far as the heavens are from the earth…..I find solace also in a familiar psalms. Psalms 23. Esp. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters”…. He RESTORETH my soul”….Your soul is the seat of all of your emotions,feelings,anxieties etc… Please allow Him to restore these things for you….And allow Him to “Make all things beautiful in His time”. My blood and heart rates are beginning to stabilize already……I will never forget her but I must remember Him !

  • Sue

    October 24th, 2021 at 4:38 PM

    My only son died this past year after more than a 5 year battle with cancer.
    I was a single mother and tried my best; not perfect.
    I loved him so much.
    I have no trouble sleeping;
    Sleep is my release.
    When I’m awake I can barely do anything. I sit and stare, daydream
    and try to hear his voice.
    It is so beautiful.

  • Lillian

    October 25th, 2021 at 7:59 AM

    I have been divorced three times then married to love of my life for thirty-five years. I was left a single parent after my third divorce and I was a survivor of domestic violence. But widowhood is a totally different grief. I even lost my mother at eight years old and it changed my whole life. But widowhood is still a whole different grief and the worst I have ever felt. I am dealing with it through my spiritual practices of meditation etc. But I am sometimes hit with grief out of the blue. Everyone has different ways of coping but this is really hard. He has only been gone about a month and a half but everything reminds me of him. I make myself eat, bathe, go places etc. But still hard. Sometimes I am ok but nothing is like widowhood. Losing a child, Must be same or worse. That I don’t know. I do have a beloved daughter who is estranged from me with little hope of recocilliation. But widowhood is the worst. Luckily I am an optimistic and dedicated spiritual person or I could not endure it. My heart goes out to all who are grieving. I try to just face my grief and deal with it when it washes over me.

  • Clara

    October 27th, 2021 at 5:13 PM

    I loved wonzer bradley’s reply. I have lost several loved ones and each one hurt as much or worse than the previous one. If I did not have the relationship with God and His son, Jesus Christ, that I do, getting through those times probably would have been much more terrible than they were. But I was able to find peace and the meaning of their lives for me. That made all the difference in my ability to cope.
    I pray that each of you can find peace, hopefully with the Lord!

  • Ardi

    November 2nd, 2021 at 3:07 AM

    I need all your help! I lost my husband of 44 years! The one and only! Just a month ago. Please!

  • Elizabeth

    November 7th, 2021 at 5:07 PM

    I’m grieving the loss of a once in a lifetime friend. We were romantically involved for a while but then as life sometimes happens, decided we would be better as friends. He was my soul mate. We talked about everything under the sun for hours and hours. I could talk to him for the rest of my life. I only got to have him around for 4 short years but the love and memories feel like a lifetime. I will forever miss him and look forward to the day I see his sweet smile again.
    I struggle with depression and loneliness. It’s been 5 months and I’m so lost without him. But I too have the promises of God that give me hope that things will get better. His wings were ready but my heart was not 💔 I love you forever and a day JSB 💛

  • Michelle

    November 16th, 2021 at 12:41 PM

    I lost my darling mother 5 weeks ago, it was a massive heart attack so it was very sudden, I never got to say goodbye, My mam was my best friend and now she’s gone, I,ll never get over losing her but I,m quite surprised that my grief for my mam is now very bearable & in 5 short weeks I’ve come to terms with it, I know everyone grieves differently but I don’t know if it’s normal to come to terms with the loss of my mam so quick, I’m worried that I might be in shock & it’s going to hit me like a ton of bricks in the near future, has anyone else experienced grief in the same way as me??

  • Svetlana

    November 25th, 2021 at 3:30 PM

    II lost my husband almost two months ago and don’t know how to go on. The pain is unbearable and gets worse, I am running in circles in my mind again and again thinking about last days when the doctor said they were going to stop treatment and what my husband said to that and it goes on and on and on. There is no way to stop this pain and no way to go on like this. What can we do?

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