The loss of a loved one is an incredibly stressful, life-altering experience that most of us will have to face at some point in our lives, and probably more than once. Many of you are no doubt already familiar with the complicated, difficult emotions that come with grieving the loss of a loved one, including sadness, frustration, anxiety, guilt, and even anger. What many people don’t acknowledge, however, is the physical toll that grief can take on the body. Bereavement is one of the most stressful experiences we can have, and stress impacts more than just our minds. Grief is often accompanied by stress responses like changes in appetite, fatigue, sleep problems, muscle tension, digestive issues, and headaches. If you’re grieving and you feel rotten, physically, you’re not imagining things, nor are you just letting your emotions get to you. Your body is grieving, too.
There’s no easy fix for getting over the loss of a loved one. It’s a pain that will lessen with time, but that may never fully go away. Know that whatever you’re experiencing — emotionally, mentally, or physically — is a natural part of the grieving process, and try to be patient with and take care of yourself as your go through it. Some people do experience what is called “complicated grief,” which the Mayo Clinic describes as “like being in an ongoing, heightened state of mourning that keeps you from healing.” People with complicated grief continue to have intense symptoms of grieving after a prolonged period of mourning; mourners who think they may be suffering from this condition should seek help from a medical professional.
1. Heartache is real.
We often use terms like “heartache” or “heartbreak” to describe intense feelings of loss and sadness, but it turns out that these words are more than metaphorical: grief does physically affect our hearts. A 2012 study found that, in the day following the loss of a loved one, mourners’ are 21 more times likely to have a heart attack than normal, and six times more likely in the week following the loss. One’s chances of heart attack or stroke continue to be higher than usual for up to a month.
There is also such a thing as “broken heart syndrome” (also known as “stress-induced cardiomyopathy” or “takotsubo cardiomyopathy”), which occurs when, during a moment of extreme stress, the left ventricle of the heart balloons, causing symptoms similar to a heart attack, included chest pain and shortness of breath. More than 90% of patients with broken heart syndrome are women. Most patients recover from the experience, though there are rare cases of death caused by broken heart syndrome.
2. Grief can compromise the immune systems of older people.
Research has shown that bereavement can weaken the immune systems of older adults, providing a possible explanation for a phenomenon that most of us have heard about: That of a seemingly-healthy person dying only weeks or months after the loss of a spouse (One famous example is Johnny Cash, who died only four months after is wife, June Carter Cash, in 2003). A 2014 study compared mourners in two age groups, one with an average age of 32 and the other with an average age of 72, alongside control groups of people who weren’t mourning. The researchers found that the older group of mourners had lowered production of neutrophils, the white blood cells that our immune systems use to combat infection. The older group also had an elevated level of cortisol, a stress hormone, and reduced levels of DHEA, a hormone that balances the effects of cortisol. These results indicate that older people who are mourning a major loss have particularly vulnerable immune systems and are more prone to infections.
The stress of grief can interfere one’s ability to sleep properly, which can, in turn, negatively impact one’s overall health, depleting cognitive function, lowering one’s immune system, and heightening one’s risk of chronic illnesses.
4. Grief can impact cognitive functioning.
Dr. M. Katherine Shear, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, told Everyday Health that grief “can interfere with the ability to think clearly, to make decisions and judgments, and problem solve.” A 2010 study also found that grief can cause lowered memory performance.
5. Grief can mess with your appetite.
According to Dr. Wendy Trubow, writing for the Huffington Post, the stress of grief can have different effects on your appetite, depending on where you are in the grieving process. She says that long-term grief can increase people’s appetites, but that short-term, or acute, grief can turn one’s appetite off. When experiencing acute stress, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode and shut down our digestive systems, so as to save energy to fight or run away. The length of time that someone is in this acute phase of stress varies from person to person, but it can eventually turn into chronic stress, which is detrimental to health in general.