Life

What Happens To Your Body When You’re Grieving

Saeed Adyani / Netflix
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Grief is a natural part of human life, whether it's for a pet who met an untimely fate or a family member who's passed. 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.

"Grieving is as much physical as it is emotional," Josh Klapow Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. 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 mourning, your feelings are valid, and you should not be pressured into "just getting over it." But 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.

1
It Can Change The Way You Think

Grief jangles the brain — in a pretty serious way. "Often the process of grieving takes a significant emotional toll," Klapow says. "The worry, sadness, anger, frustration, and fears all impact our central nervous system." It can even disorder the memory; those who are grieving, according to a study published in Clinical Psychological Science in 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.

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 in JAMA Psychiatry observed 6.7 million Danish people and discovered that, among other health effects, losing a partner to suicide made people more likely to develop serious depression and anxiety. People who've lost somebody, therapist Heidi McBain LMFT tells Bustle, can also experience difficulty concentrating.

2
It Can Exhaust You

Extreme fatigue is common among people who are dealing with strong emotions, like mourning. "Individuals grieving who experience powerful emotions can become physically exhausted," Klapow says. "It’s like an emotional and physical workout."

Grief can be physically exhausting because it's emotionally taxing — and all that work can do a number on the body. "People may feel exhausted and drained much of the day," McBain says. "They may suffer from headaches too."

3
It Can Cause Literal Heart Problems

Dying of a broken heart? It's absolutely a thing. Broken heart syndrome, also known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, and involves chest pains and blood flow issues. But heart problems following the death of somebody close are considerable.

People who are grieving, McBain says, "may be feeling more frustrated and agitated, which can bring physical symptoms such as heart palpitations and shortness of breath." A 2012 study of nearly 2,000 people published in Circulation 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 in Immunity & Ageing. 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 physical exhaustion driven by emotional surges and neglects in self-care can and often does put the grieving person in a compromised physical state," Klapow says.

The key factor in this is 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 published in Psychiatric Annals 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. "It is common in the grieving process to neglect self-care, from eating properly to disruptions in sleep," Klapow says.

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. People who are in mourning, McBain says, often eat more or less than usual, and may suffer from gastrointestinal problems.

Experts:

Josh Klapow Ph.D., clinical psychologist

Heidi McBain LMFT, therapist

Studies cited:

Donald J. Robinaugh and Richard J. McNally. (2013) Remembering the Past and Envisioning the Future in Bereaved Adults With and Without Complicated Grief. Clinical Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/2167702613476027

Monk, T. H., Germain, A., & Reynolds, C. F. (2008). Sleep Disturbance in Bereavement. Psychiatric annals, 38(10), 671–675. https://doi.org/10.3928/00485713-20081001-06

Mostofsky E, Maclure M, Sherwood JB, Tofler GH, Muller JE, Mittleman MA. Risk of acute myocardial infarction after the death of a significant person in one's life: the Determinants of Myocardial Infarction Onset Study. Circulation. 2012 Jan 24;125(3):491-6. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.111.061770.

Vitlic, A., Khanfer, R., Lord, J.M. et al. Bereavement reduces neutrophil oxidative burst only in older adults: role of the HPA axis and immunesenescence. Immun Ageing11, 13 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1742-4933-11-13

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