It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that grief is purely emotional. Normal grief is a complex and multifaceted response to painful loss, bereavement or a traumatic event. Aside from the emotional response, it can also affect us in the following ways:
During the grieving process, common responses can occur in any of the above ways either individually or concurrently. There is no ‘typical’ experience as grief is unique to you.
Grief and the body
If I cast my mind back to my studies, I learnt that there are 12 systems in our body. I know, 12!
In no particular order, we have the following systems;
You don’t need to know about the intricacies of these systems, they are evidentially interconnected. The thing that’s important to recognise is that each of these systems is susceptible to the effects of grief.
That doesn’t mean to say that your bodily systems will definitely all be affected, or even at all, but there is a good chance you may experience some symptoms.
“A handful of recent good-quality studies show bereaved people demonstrate higher levels of systemic inflammation, maladaptive immune cell gene expression and lower antibody response to vaccination compared with non- bereaved controls.” Review of research since 1977 on; ‘The Immune System’s Role in Bereavement’, Psychosomatic Medicine, 2019.
The most common symptoms
Grief is draining which of course, takes a toll on our bodies. It can leave you feeling constantly tired and weak. This is often linked to that fat that we may develop poor eating habits, poor sleep patterns and general fatigue.
This is often connected with the disturbance to normal eating habits or changes to routine. It’s not uncommon to experience temporary problems with your digestive system, such as constipation, diarrhoea, stomach pain, a “hollow” feeling in the stomach, or feeling nauseas. Sabine Horner, founder of Asana Nutrition UK, has written a previous guest blog with some useful insights and tips.
Changes to Weight
Following loss, you may add or lose a few pounds to your normal weight, depending on how affected eating habits and exercise routines are.
For example, the distraction of grief may take you away from your personal care which might result in a lack of exercise, overeating, eating out more often, an increase in alcohol or junk and fast food consumption.
You may notice yourself “eating on the go” especially during the earlier days where practical arrangements after a death take precedence. You may feel less than inspired to cook meals at home and there can be a sense of isolation from loved ones who might otherwise encourage you to eat or take care of yourself.
On the flip side, you may also not eat enough, fail to eat at regular intervals, or forget to eat at all. In my personal experience, my digestive system had shut down to the point of developing anxiety around eating and therefore feeling physically sick at the thought of food. This required specialist help.
If you notice any changes to your eating patterns, it’s important to seek professional help. Food Relationship Coach and registered Dietician, Louise Tanner-Stokes, wrote a super helpful guest blog on the subject of food.
Memory & Motor Skills
This is what I termed as my “grief brain”. This might include an inability to focus or concentrate and remember things. You may notice a slower response rate to external stimuli, as if your body is set to “go slow”. This is particularly concerning in situations such as driving or operating machinery so please do take great care and make adjustments where necessary.
In addition to this, you may be experiencing grief triggers, which bring about unexpected emotional responses, such as tears or sobbing. These can also temporarily interfere with your physical ability.
Stress Responses & Anxiety
Feeling nervous and stressed often manifests itself in physical reactions within the body. The fight or flight system will be activated during times of extreme stress and anxiousness, so you may experience increased agitation, freezing up, fidgetiness, sweaty or clammy hands/feet, heart palpitations, feelings of tingling or numbness, tightness in your throat or chest, over sensitivity to noise and light, tunnel vision, body tremors, stomach and digestive issues, ringing in the ears, difficulty breathing, dry mouth. Once the adrenal leaves the body, you may be left feeling tired and weak. If symptoms persist, please consult with your GP. On a previous blog, I wrote about some basic tips which may help you in the moment.
Colds & Flu
The stress of losing a loved one and the subsequent grief can reduce or suppress your immune system, making you more susceptible to coming down with a cold or catching the flu. In addition, those with an existing chronic health condition might experience a worsening of their symptoms. You may wish to explore ways in which you can increase your vitamin and mineral intake, as well as other homeopathic remedies from a reputable source.
Aches & Pains
It has been scientifically proven that our minds and bodies are intrinsically linked. I always remember a saying that “your issues are in your tissues”… the tissues within our body that is. Although this area of research is continuing to develop, we do know that our brains can trigger genuine physical responses to real or imagined things we perceive.
Likewise, the grieving process can induce physical feelings of pain or discomfort in the body such as headaches or migraines, neck and back aches, or overall muscular pain. You may want to consult with a chiropractor or physiotherapist.
Disruptions to Sleep
Grief thoughts and emotions often become loudest at night, and an increased feeling of isolation can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep. Full on insomnia can deprive you of the necessary healing benefits provided by quality sleep. A podcast interview with Psychologist Maxine Cook on ‘Life Beyond Loss’, revealed that the important factor is not so much how many hours sleep we have, but the need for good quality sleep.
On the other side of the coin, sleeping for too many hours at a time, or throughout the day, can actually decrease your energy and leave you feeling lethargic.
Sleeping offers temporary relief from the pain of grief, so regardless of whether you naturally sleep or choose to catch a few more Zzzzs by taking a nap, you can wake up feeling less than refreshed.
Ways to cope
There is no single method to eliminate or avoid the physical affects you might experience after a loss. I suggest taking a holistic approach to your health and wellbeing. While difficult and often painful, grief is a normal and necessary response to the death of a loved one, and most people will see a reduction of grief-induced physical effects over time.
If any of the physical effects you’re experiencing do not subside or feel unbearable, it’s important that you consult with your GP or seek support from a relevant healthcare professional. Sometimes talking about your emotional pain can alleviate the physical symptoms you’re experiencing. I’m here to help with that.
In addition, the most important way you can help yourself while grieving is self-care. It’s becomes one of those cheesy phrases that we all know about. A good way to approach this is to take things day-by-day and ask yourself “what do I need today?” Many of the physical effects of grief listed above arise from the failure to listen to our bodies and practice the healthy habits we otherwise might. The practice of mindfulness can help you to develop these skills, which is why I teach also Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses.