Grief can be a thoroughly flattening experience. You don't feel like getting out of bed, you cry all the time, and you can't foresee a time when you'll feel better. However, while the psychological effects of grief can be devastating, the physical symptoms of grief can be just as powerful, and you may not be prepared for them.
"When it comes to processing grief, we struggle with how it makes us feel and the symptoms can manifest physically," Celeste Viciere, LMHC, a therapist at the Uniting Center, tells Bustle. "One reason behind the physical manifestation of grief could be because we tend to mask some of our internal pain. We tend to hold our trauma in our body and when it is not processed, it can start to manifest in a physical way." Physical symptoms can stem from stress, anxiety and other psychological issues, but they do require attention on their own merits.
It's important to note that not everybody experiences grief in the same physical way. "Grief is such a personal journey in that it can affect one person physically in a very different way than it affects another person physically," Heidi McBain LMFT, a mental health counselor, tells Bustle. There isn't one mold of physical grief symptoms: people can experience exhaustion, a loss of memory, crying fits, aches and pains all at the same time. Whether you're getting over a breakup, a death, or some other kind of serious loss, the physical symptoms aren't imaginary or unimportant; they're a real part of the experience, and should be recognized as such.
Here are nine ways grief can physically affect you, and how to handle it.
1. Changes In Sleep Patterns
"Some physical symptoms that we see with grief that are similar to depressive symptoms," says McBain. Sleep is one of those aspects; people who are grieving may experience insomnia or sleep for longer than usual, as their internal clocks respond to the intense stress of their emotional processing. If you're experiencing issues with sleeping — whether you're over-sleeping your alarms or can't seem to get to sleep at night — it's a good idea to see your doctor. While sleep might not seem like a big deal, it's actually an essential part of your wellbeing and can affect many other areas of your health if you aren't getting enough rest.
2. Changes In Hunger
McBain also notes that hunger can be affected by grief; many people can lose their appetites, or want to eat at strange times. Grief-eating is also a recognized issue, where grieving people eat large amounts out of emotional stress. Some grieving people are also unable to choose what to eat unless it's put in front of them, a problem known as decision fatigue. Concerned about your food intake while you're grieving? It's worth making sure you have a lot of easy meals in the house, whether it's frozen food or microwave meals, and trying to keep to a normal eating schedule even if you don't feel hungry.
3. Crashing Energy Levels
Dealing with grief can sap your energy reserves. Lower energy levels, says McBain, are a typical bodily response to grief; you may well feel exhausted even if you haven't done very much physical activity, because emotional processing can take a toll on our physical strength and sometimes the logistics of loss, like organizing funerals, can be extremely tiring.
If you feel relatively stable in emotional terms but are extremely tired, this could be a sign that you're dealing with a lot of stress unconsciously and holding it in your body. Practice some relaxation techniques, and take time to nap in short bursts throughout the day.
4. Inability To Concentrate
Not able to focus? That's pretty common, say experts. "Physical symptoms might include a fogginess in their brain, which is often present during early grief," says McBain. Studies have shown that grief seriously impacts cognitive function, leaving people less capable of everyday thinking or clear memory. Unfortunately there may not be much you can do about this, but if you're grieving, it's worth asking somebody else around you to support you by helping you remember your keys and appointments, as you may forget things.
5. Pounding Heart
Grief can be incredibly anxiety-provoking. "Most times, the loss we experience can happen suddenly and our body comes under stress," Viciere tells Bustle. "That's a huge shock and trauma to our body. Any form of stress can send our body into overdrive." This can result in anxiety-like symptoms like pounding hearts and high blood pressure, as the body copes with the massive shock it's just endured. When this happens, practice slow breathing techniques to attempt to slow your heartbeat down: breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, counting slowly to five each time.
Even if you've never experienced a migraine before, grief may induce one, say experts. Research shows that migraines can be triggered by stress and extreme emotions, and grief definitely qualifies as a classic triggering mechanism. Migraines need to be treated with proper medical care, so if you experience them regularly, go to a doctor and see if you can identify triggers together and come up with an appropriate treatment plan.
7. Shortness Of Breath
Tightness in your chest and shortness of breath, says McBain, are pretty common in people who experience grief. "They may be anxiety-related," she tells Bustle; when grief is sudden, the body may go into fight-or-flight mode as the amygdala in the brain is over-activated, prompting symptoms of anxiety. This is essentially a panic attack, and will pass, but in the moment it can be very intense. If certain elements make you feel these symptoms repeatedly, it may be worth exploring exposure therapy in the future, which helps you experience these triggers without a panicked reaction.
8. Greater Vulnerability To Illness
The physical impact of grief may also leave people open to other illnesses. People who are grieving, says McBain, "are more prone to getting sick, possibly because they are run down due to lack of sleep and overall heightened stress levels." Immune systems tend to be suppressed following serious shocks, leading to a higher risk of infections and viruses — so don't be surprised if you tend to get more colds. If you're grieving, keep yourself away from people with contagious disorders, and wash your hands regularly to avoid picking up any stray germs.
9. Bodily Aching
Loss can really ache — and not just in a metaphorical way. "People report that their whole body just hurts," says McBain. Common symptoms include back pain, joint pains, muscle pains from stress, and general feelings of pain. Muscle pain in particular is a response to stress, as muscles involuntarily contract. It's worth seeing a therapist to help with this symptom; as physical pain in this context is connected strongly to emotional pain, learning to deal with the latter may help with the former. Consider seeing a doctor to identify how to treat the pain, too.
Grief can be a very physical experience, but if your symptoms don't abate over time or seem extreme, there may be other problems afoot. "Check with your doctor to make sure there isn’t an underlying medical issue that is undiagnosed," McBain tells Bustle. "If all is fine medically, finding a therapist who specializes in grief and loss can help you process your grief, which will hopefully help lower some of the physical grief symptoms that you’ve been experiencing as well." As you channel and process your feelings, your body will experience less stress and anxiety, and hopefully over time you can move past the throes of intense physical grief into healing.
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Celeste Viciere, LMHC
Heidi McBain, LMFT