Grief is a normal and natural part of human life, whether it's for a family member who's passed or a pet who met an untimely fate. But you may be surprised to know just how much grief can affect your physical health. Scientists are increasingly discovering that grief is a bodily phenomenon that has serious and wide-ranging effects on human health, from cognition to digestion to the way we sleep.
Humans appear not to be the only animals who grieve; evidence suggests that other species, including dolphins, apes, and birds, may exhibit behaviors that are consistent with mourning and missing a companion who's passed on (though because we can't ask animals about their emotions, we can't be precisely sure). And being flattened by grief is a more holistic experience than many of us had ever imagined, encompassing many disparate areas of human health. One thing's for sure: if you're in the midst of serious grieving, your feelings are valid, and you should not be pressured into "just getting over it." However, if your grief is beginning to affect you physically in the ways outlined below, it may be worth speaking to a doctor about how to heal. And don't forget to take care of yourself as you grieve, which is, for many parts of your body, a hugely stressful event.
1. It Can Change The Way You Think
Grief jangles the brain — in a pretty serious way. Apparently, it can even disorder the memory; those who are grieving, according to science from 2013, can find it incredibly difficult to remember things from their past (except if those memories include the person who has passed away), and found it exceptionally difficult to picture a future without them. And studies in 2011 found that huge cognitive performance downfalls occurred after deaths in the family, as the brain struggled with basic things like perception and mood. It's also far more likely that people who've had a spouse die will start to develop serious mental health issues afterwards; a study published in 2017 of 6.7 million Danish people discovered that, among other health effects, losing a partner to suicide made people more likely to develop serious depression and anxiety.
2. It Can Trigger The Reward Centers Of The Brain
Ever met somebody who's been mourning for a long time and can't seem to "move on"? There's a good neurological reason for that, and it's not about trying to get attention or being psychologically stuck. Research from 2008 reveals that grief, in its chronic form, can be psychologically addictive, triggering the reward centers of the brain that are associated with things like gambling and substance use disorder. The people who are stuck in grieving mode are, under this theory, hooked on thoughts and reminders of their loved one, and while they don't get any emotional boost from their memories, their brains appear to use substance use disorder-like patterns as a way to move through the experience.
3. It Can Cause Literal Heart Problems
Dying of a broken heart? It's absolutely a thing. Broken heart syndrome, a serious dysfunction of the heart suffered after losing a loved one, is also known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy and involves chest pains and blood flow issues. But heart problems following the death of somebody close are considerable. A 2012 study of nearly 2000 people found that, in the 24-hour period following serious stressful "grief events," people's risk of acute myocardial infarction, or a heart attack, increases 21-fold. Grief, the scientists behind the study believe, is so intensely stressful that it causes a cascading effect of consequences in the body, from thicker blood to increased blood pressure overall.
4. It Can Make You More Prone To Infection
Grief causes a crash in immune system function and makes people more vulnerable to illness, according to research published in 2014. People suffer intense immune system problems after exposure to stress, something that gets worse as they get older and the body becomes less capable of dealing with rises in stress hormones effectively. The key factor in that? The hormone DHEAS, which is at its highest when we're young and is usually capable of moderating the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. As we get older, DHEAS levels drop, cortisol wreaks havoc on our immune system, and we're more at risk of getting sick.
5. It Causes Physical Pain
The tie between the mental and the physical is more intense than you might have imagined, and grief brings that out. It's common for people who are grieving to experience physical pains; an investigation by the BBC in 2016 found that this is likely because the same area of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, processes both physical pain and emotional pain. It's conceivable that intense emotional agony can cross over into physical symptoms, even if nothing visible appears to be triggering them.
6. It Can Disorder Sleep
Insomnia and sleep disturbance are both very common in people coping with bereavement. A study of people who'd lost their spouses in 2008 found that their sleep patterns were often extremely disturbed, and that the more they tossed and turned, the more likely they were to pass away early. Interestingly enough, though, a 2010 study found that helping people who were grieving with their sleep problems also helped them to begin to cope with the grief itself, so clearly the two are heavily related, and those in mourning should put work into attempting to get a good night's rest.
7. It Can Play Havoc With Your Digestive System
Digestive disruption and problems with appetite are a hugely common after-effect of grief, and they're down to the relationship between the gut and the brain, a complex link that can be thrown into disarray by serious stress. Grief is one of the biggest stressors around, and the gut's own nervous system (yes, it has one of its own, comprising neurotransmitters and other signals just like the brain) is acutely affected by events like it, prompting gastrointestinal issues like slow or painful digestion or a complete lack of appetite.
If you're grieving, it's important that you reach out and get the right mental support — but even in this confusing and painful period, you have to look after your physical health too. If you notice that things seem amiss, go see a doctor.