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.


  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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  • Leave a Comment
  • 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.

    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.


  • 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.

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