How to Cope With the Physical Symptoms of Grief
In addition to the powerful emotional effects, there are also a number of serious physical symptoms of grief. Many people mistakenly believe that grief is a single emotion, but normal grief is actually a powerful, multifaceted, and often uncontrollable response that human beings experience following a personally painful or traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one.
Grief can affect us not only emotionally but also physically, mentally, and even spiritually.2 When you are experiencing grief, you may feel it both mentally and physically. During this time, you may experience a variety of physical symptoms that are part of the normal grief response.
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This article discusses some of the physical symptoms of grief and describes some of the strategies that you can use to cope.
Digestive Problems and Weight Changes
Digestive problems and weight changes are common physical symptoms of grief. Often connected with the disruption to normal eating habits or routines, bereavement can cause temporary digestive problems such as constipation, diarrhea, stomach pain, a “hollow feeling” in the stomach, queasiness, or feeling nauseated.
Changes in weight are also common. In the days, weeks, and months following a death, many people often gain a few pounds. Lack of exercise, lack of personal care, overeating, eating out more often, and eating more junk food can play a role in weight changes. Isolation from loved ones who might otherwise encourage healthier or more consistent eating habits can also be a contributing factor.
It’s also true that when grieving, many people “under eat,” fail to eat regular meals, or simply eat nothing at all. Particularly during the first several days or first weeks following the death, mourners tasked might find the myriad of necessary details and decisions—as well as the influx of relatives and friends—distracting and simply forget to eat, or to eat on a regular schedule.
Grief can contribute to stomach upset as well as changes in weight. Grief also often creates an emotional distraction that can create a general feeling of apathy about one’s physical well-being and personal care.
Pain, Discomfort, or Illness
The experience of grieving a death can induce other physical symptoms of grief including genuine feelings of pain or discomfort, such as headaches or migraines, chest pain, heaviness in the limbs, aches in the neck, back, or skeletal joints, or overall muscular pain.
One study found that people already at high cardiovascular risk might experience an increased risk of a heart attack in the days following the death of a significant person.
The stress of losing a loved one and the subsequent grief can reduce or suppress the immune system, making you more susceptible to viruses and infections. In addition, people with an existing chronic health condition might experience a worsening of their symptoms.
Research has also shown that grief is linked to increased levels of inflammation in the body. Inflammation is a predictor of cardiovascular issues, other illnesses, and increased mortality.
Sleeping issues are also common physical symptoms of grief. Insomnia can deprive a grieving individual of the necessary recuperative benefits of a good night’s sleep.4 This lack of sleep can affect appearance, such as creating puffiness in the face and eyes. A lack of adequate sleep due to grief often affects physical coordination, cognitive function, and blood pressure.
While sleep is an essential daily human function, sleeping for too many hours at a time, or throughout the day, can actually sap your energy and leave you feeling lethargic.
Sleeping offers a refuge that often helps mourners temporarily escape the pain of grief. Regardless of whether a grieving person naturally sleeps too long or chooses to take extra naps, they may feel less than refreshed after too many hours of slumber.
Difficulty With Daily Activities
Physical symptoms of grief can make it difficult to cope with daily activities. For example, you may experience symptoms of fatigue or nervousness that make it challenging to manage normal tasks.
Feeling nervous or anxious often manifests itself in physical ways, such as tapping your fingers, pacing back and forth, fidgeting, an inability to sit and relax in one place for long, sweaty or clammy hands or feet, or feelings of tingling or numbness in those extremities.
Some mourners have also reported experiencing dry mouth, noise sensitivity, trembling or feeling shaky, tightness in the throat or chest, shortness of breath, and increased allergy symptoms.
What Is Complicated Grief?
Around 7% of bereaved individuals will experience what is known as complicated grief. This involves the continued presence of intense symptoms of grief that persist longer than the normal grieving period. These symptoms include an inability to focus on anything other than the death, intense feelings of anger and sadness, feelings of hopelessness, and difficulty accepting the reality of the death.
Coping With Physical Symptoms of Grief
Unfortunately, there is no method to eliminate or avoid the physical symptoms of grief that you might experience after a loss. 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 with the passage of time.
For some symptoms, such as stomach upset, over-the-counter medications may be helpful. Always take these medications as directed.
If any of the physical effects you’re experiencing do not subside in time or feel unbearable, consult your physician or healthcare provider. This is particularly the case for pain or physical discomfort, digestive problems, illness or flu, or if an existing chronic health issue worsens.
The most important way you can help yourself while grieving is to take care of yourself and your needs. Many of the physical effects of grief arise from the failure to listen to our bodies and practice the healthy habits we otherwise might. Here are several important ways grievers can care for themselves.
Drink plenty of water throughout the day and avoid excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol acts as a diuretic and can actually dehydrate your body.
If you regularly exercised before the death of your loved one, try to continue that routine as much as possible. And if you led a sedentary lifestyle, consider finding some time to exercise each day, such as taking your dog for a walk, riding your bike, or asking a friend to stroll with you in the local park or shopping mall.
Even moderate daily exercise can help you sleep better, help work out some muscle stiffness or discomfort, and lift your spirits and improve your outlook.
Eat Nutritious, Nourishing Foods
Grievers often find it difficult to have a meal even if they feel like eating. At times like this, consider eating several smaller meals during the day if your schedule interferes with your usual breakfast, lunch, and dinner routine.
In addition, the foods you consume should consist of healthy, nourishing items. If you lack the time or energy to shop for groceries, consider asking a loved one to visit the market for you.
While grief typically disrupts our normal sleep patterns, getting proper rest is important. To whatever extent possible, try to develop a regular bedtime routine and schedule; minimize distractions, such as a television, iPad or tablet, or cell phone; and keep your bedroom dark. In addition, try to avoid caffeinated drinks for at least three hours before bedtime.
Making plans for the future and staying busy can also help with the physical pain of grief. Having things to do in the future can give you something to look forward to. Staying busy at the moment can help take your mind off of your discomfort and grief.
While there isn’t any quick or easy way to relieve the physical symptoms of grief, there are steps you can take to start feeling better. Staying hydrated, being physically active, eating well, and getting plenty of rest can help. Making plans for the future can also offer a distraction from your physical symptoms.
By Chris Raymond and Medically reviewed by Daniel B. Block, MD