Grief is a natural reaction to the death or loss of a loved one. While the grieving process is highly individual, and there’s no right or wrong way to grieve, many people find that grief is not entirely emotional.
When it causes physical symptoms, people may worry they have an undiagnosed physical health problem; however, exploring the multifaceted process of grief may provide better insight into how it can present physical symptoms in the body.
Many people perceive grief to be a single emotion, but normal grief is an uncontrollable response to a personally hurtful and traumatic event. It can be very powerful and complex and causes a range of effects on the body and mind.
Losing a loved one may seem unfair, so naturally, a person may feel angry and frustrated and look for someone or something to blame for the loss. They may feel overwhelmed, cry a lot, or feel like they are unable to cope with the immediate feelings they experience.
People who are grieving may suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can impact their memory. The mind may attempt to protect them from pain, causing the person to feel empty following a loss. Numbness, denial, or disbelief is natural and can help someone process what has happened at a manageable pace. Shock also provides emotional protection after a loss by preventing someone from becoming overwhelmed, especially during the early stages of grief.
In some instances, some may feel relieved when a person dies, especially when a loved one has suffered a long illness, or if the relationship with them was difficult. Relief is another normal response and does not indicate any less care or love for the person who has passed.
But what about the physical symptoms of grief? Is physical pain a normal part of the grieving process too?
Physical Symptoms of Grief
Grief can affect the whole body, so it is normal to feel physical effects when someone dies.
Strong emotional symptoms, along with practical things that need to be considered after losing a loved one, can cause feelings of exhaustion. In the first days or weeks following a death, people may have to deal with many details, decisions, and an influx of family and friends on top of the shock and emotional pain they experience.
Disruption of normal eating habits can lead to problems, such as stomach pain, constipation or diarrhoea. An increase or decrease in appetite is common, leading to weight loss or weight gain. Other common physical symptoms of grief include:
- Dry mouth
- Oversensitivity to noise
- Chest pain or tightness and heaviness in the chest
Grief may also cause insomnia or the disruption of sleeping patterns. Some people are frightened to go to sleep due to nightmares, while others can not fall asleep as their minds are racing. People may also dream of the person who died and find waking up very painful. Too much or too little sleep also contributes to other physical problems, such as fatigue and the inability to concentrate.
Grief increases inflammation, which worsens any existing health problems or may lead to new ones. It can harm the immune system, leaving people vulnerable to infections and various physical health problems. Some people also have vulnerable cardiovascular systems when grieving, which leads to increased rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Back pain, joint pain, and stiffness can be caused by the overwhelming amount of stress hormones released during the grieving process. Stress hormones can stun the muscles, meaning that grief and acute stress can cause cardiac illness and heart attacks. One study found the incidence of heart attack increases 21-fold within one day of the death of a loved one, declining steadily each day after that.
What Is Complicated Grief?
The natural response to a permanent and impactful loss may take time to lessen; however, grief should ease over time.
Intense grief that is accompanied by painful emotions that are so severe and long-lasting that a person has great difficulty recovering from loss or resuming their loss, is called complicated grief. In these cases where typical grief symptoms linger or get worse, the same emotional pain and feelings someone experienced the day that the trauma occurred, persist for months or more than a year.
Complicated grief can affect someone physically, mentally, and socially. In the first months after a loss, people may show signs and symptoms of normal grief, but thereafter the symptoms may not fade away. The exact causes of complicated grief are unknown, but research conducted by the Columbia University School of Social Work estimates that it occurs in about 7% of bereaved people. Many factors seem to play a role, including the environment, personality, inherited traits, chemical makeup, and the relationship with the deceased person.
How Does Complicated Grief Feel?
Complicated grief may feel like normal grief, but it persists over a long period and is harder to cope with. It can also come with additional problems.
While the cognitive effects of grief can affect a person’s short-term memory and impact their ability to problem solve, think clearly, or make good decisions, complicated grief can impact mental function more severely, including long-term memory and memory recall.
Digestive problems, fatigue, headaches, and sleeplessness may also continue for long periods, making everyday life difficult.
Emotional symptoms and feelings that are typical in the days and weeks after a traumatic event, may occur long-term. These include:
- Emotional numbness
- Detachment and social withdrawal
- Increased irritability and agitation
- Inability to show or experience joy
Managing grief can be extremely difficult, and with complicated grief, someone may have a preoccupation with the loss they experienced and have a sense that life no longer has any meaning. This is why it is essential to understand the warning signs that indicate problems dealing with grief, and get professional help when symptoms of grief persist for long periods.
Symptoms of Complicated Grief
While anxiety is a natural component of the grieving process, symptoms that do not lessen after six months following a loss could indicate an anxiety disorder or that someone is experiencing complicated grief. They may suffer from the inability to focus on anything other than the death of a loved one. This means they experience intense feelings of anger, sadness, and hopelessness, and have difficulty accepting the loss of a loved one is real.
The prolonged experience of these emotional symptoms can lead to:
- Anxiety ( including PTSD, phobias, and social anxiety)
- Significant sleep problems
- Long-term difficulty with relationships, work, or daily living
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviours
- Increased risk of physical illness – such as high blood pressure, cancer, or heart disease
Many people attempt to deal with their feelings of loss by self-medicating. They may use alcohol and drugs if they feel anxious, depressed, or unable to cope. Unresolved grief and depression can lead to a substance use dependency, which in turn can make the emotional, mental, and physical symptoms of grief – and overall health – worse.
Tips for Physical, Emotional, and Mental Health
There are a few things that could help someone who is grieving.
Emotional and physical self-care can ease grief complications and boost a person’s general well-being. Physical and mental health can be supported by exercise, getting enough sleep, and spending time in nature. While social isolation is natural and common, reaching out and talking to loved ones can provide emotional support at a difficult time.
Not being able to cope with bereavement is also natural. It can be very beneficial to address grief head-on by participating in support groups or workshops. A support group gives someone a chance to talk to others who have also experienced loss, which can help with the healing process. It also provides a peer support system, which can be vital at a time when detachment or social isolation is common.
It may be helpful to seek professional support, especially when symptoms of grief do not fade or when they worsen over time. Bereavement counselling and individual psychotherapy can explore the emotions surrounding loss, address negative thoughts, and teach healthy coping skills.
Where Can I Find Help?
If you or a loved one is having difficulty processing grief, The Wave Clinic can help. We understand that dealing with trauma is difficult, and grief may come with personal and individual struggles of anxiety and depression.
At The Wave, we create a safe space for you to truly heal from the past by providing you with the care and support needed to work through trauma and the process of change. We adopt a whole-person approach, which means your treatment will be tailored to your specific needs and with a focus on personal, positive growth.
We offer a multitude of treatments designed to address trauma and its consequences and empower people with healthy coping strategies. Alongside medication and one-to-one and group therapy, we offer a range of treatments and approaches that are designed to elevate general well-being.
Art therapies and experiential therapies are included in our treatment of those who suffer from anxiety or depression, while we provide various treatments for dealing with trauma, including eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) and stress response therapy.
Contact us today to find out more.