7 Ways Grief Can Affect Your Physical Health

Ad failed to load

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.

Ad failed to load

1It Can Change The Way You Think

Alex Grimm/Getty Images News/Getty Images

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.

2It Can Trigger The Reward Centers Of The Brain

Carsten Koall/Getty Images News/Getty Images

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.

3It Can Cause Literal Heart Problems

master1305 / Fotolia

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.

Ad failed to load

4It Can Make You More Prone To Infection

nikodash / Fotolia

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.

5It Causes Physical Pain

draganagordic / Fotolia

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.

6It Can Disorder Sleep

silverkblack / Fotolia

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.

Ad failed to load

7It Can Play Havoc With Your Digestive System

marjan4782 / Fotolia

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.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

Everything Leaving & Coming To Netflix In June To Help Get Your Summer Started

Summer is right around the corner, and so is another batch of streaming options to get excited about. On Wednesday, everything leaving and coming to Netflix in June 2018 was announced by the streaming platform. And don't worry, there's something for …
By Jamie Primeau

The 5 Rom-Coms You Need To Read This Summer, According To Someone Who Writes Them

'Tis the season for rom-coms. The weather is warm, the sun is shining, and everyone is rocking the flirtiest items in their wardrobe. I don't know about you, but summer always takes me back to my teenage years — and that automatically makes me want t…
By Cristina Arreola

11 Tiny Sunglasses That Will Make You Look Even Cooler Than Kylie Jenner

You know what they say — the tinier the sunglasses, the more stylish the outfit. OK, that's not really a saying, but it seems to be the case these days. Basically every celebrity, model, and It person has been spotted sporting tiny sunglasses as part…
By Sara Tan

9 Ways This Royal Wedding Was Way More Modern Than Past Ones

The newly named Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, made history with their storybook courtship and wedding. What's more, there are myriad ways the royal wedding 2018 was more modern than previous royal weddings. From deciding…
By Brandi Neal

10 Little-Known British Traditions Meghan Markle Will Learn When She Marries Prince Harry

As an American woman dating a Brit, I am no stranger to the mishaps that can result from the cultural differences between the U.S. and England. And while I'm sure Meghan Markle has a slew of royal traditions to learn, titles to remember, and fancy ha…
By Kristin Magaldi

I've Paid $18,000 To A $24,000 Student Loan, & I Still Owe $24,000

It all became real the summer before my senior year of college. It was 2010, and my home phone still had a cord, which I wrapped around my fingers as I waited not-so-patiently for the apathetic representative on the other end to tell me the bad news …
By Kaitlyn Cawley

12 Personality Quizzes That Will Help You Determine Your Exact Strengths

Learning more about yourself can be tough. It's so easy to observe others to learn what makes them tick, what areas they really excel in, and the things they could be better at. Doing that to yourself, however, is a whole different story. That's exac…
By Jessica Booth

5 Brand New Short Story Collections You Can Finish In One Sitting This Weekend

Since 2013, May has been known by book-lovers by another name: Short Story Month. If you're ready to kick off this year's celebration the right way, make sure to pick up a short story collection to read over the weekend. Modern life moves more than …
By Sadie Trombetta

I Got Styled By 'Queer Eye's Tan France & Realized I Still Have A Lot Of Fashion "Rules" To Unlearn

When I walked into a New York City Express store on May 2 to get styled by Queer Eye's Tan France, I was ready for anything. And I mean truly anything. I am such a massive fan of the show and Tan that if he had instructed me to wrap myself in tin foi…
By Olivia Muenter

It Isn’t Bad To Have A “Princess Fantasy” — Mine Made Me The Woman I Am Today

What do you want to be when you grow up? If you were anything like me as a kid, at some point, the answer to that question was "a princess." Thanks to good old-fashioned gender stereotypes, most little girls born in the '90s (and even now) grew up in…
By Nicole Pomarico

Here’s How To Get A FREE 30-Minute Facial At Sephora That Sucks Your Pores Clean

Sephora has long been a mecca for both serious and amateur beauty lovers alike, where they not only have makeup artists that help answer questions about products, but free samples to let you play with new collections. But now they have upped the ante…
By Marlen Komar

Kris Jenner Is FINALLY Launching A Makeup Line With Kylie

Maybe you don't have a favorite sister of the Kar-Jenner clan, and that's perfectly fine. The one thing you can't deny, though, is that when it comes power, no one in that family has more than the world famous momager. Now, Kris Jenner x Kylie Cosmet…
By Shea Simmons

This Kendall Jenner “Diva” Moment Is Really Being Taken Out Of Context

The fashion always takes center stage at the Met Gala, but there's usually a little drama, too. And this time, a member of the Kardashian-Jenner family is involved. People are buzzing about how Kendall Jenner shoved someone at the Met Gala, but after…
By Nicole Pomarico

Feel Like You've Seen Everything On Netflix? Add These Movies To Your Watch List

The weekend may feel too far away, but if you're lacking formal plans, a Netflix marathon session is always a good idea. If you're an avid viewer, however, you probably feel like you've seen everything the streaming platform has to offer already. In …
By Ashley Rey

These 4 Zodiac Signs Are Going To Have The Best Luck In Love This May

Spring fever is here, but not all signs in the zodiac are dealt the same dose of lovin'. Some signs are going to have a better love lives than the rest of us in May, because that's just the way the cookie crumbles. According to astrologer Linda Furia…
By Kaitlyn Wylde

Hillary Clinton Says She's Ready To Fight Like A Republican — EXCLUSIVE

Hillary Clinton Is Not Going Away Quietly. Can Hillary Clinton Please Go Quietly Into The Night? Unlike Losers Before Her, Clinton Is Not Going Gently Into the Night. These headlines, which appeared in various news outlets over the course of the last…
By Catherine Thompson and Jenny Hollander

Here's The Very Best Time To Book Your Summer Vacation If You're Trying To Save Money

Summer is a great time to travel, for obvious reasons. The weather is better. Many offices are more lax about time off. If you have kids, they’re out of school. But there’s one very important element that makes summer not a great time to travel: Cost…
By Emma McGowan