Grief. It’s Not Just in Your Head

Grief is a feeling of profound sadness caused by significant loss. It can be felt from the loss of anyone or anything significant, including a friend, loved one, job, romantic relationship or a pet. The more than 1.1 million Americans who died from COVID-19 during the past three years have forced many of us to confront the emotional upheaval caused by grief. More Americans are seeking grief-related mental health support than ever before. Grief affects us physically as well, and during the past 20 years, scientists have been increasingly able to pinpoint the ways in which grief can take a toll on our bodies.

Broken Heart Syndrome

Anyone who’s been through a significant loss may not be surprised to learn that “broken heart syndrome” is an actual medical diagnosis. Broken heart syndrome, also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo syndrome, typically occurs after a physically or emotionally traumatic event, such as the loss of a loved one, divorce, car accidents, bad fights or near-drowning experiences.

Signs and symptoms include:

• Sudden, severe chest pain — a main symptom
• Shortness of breath — a main symptom
• Weakening of the left ventricle of your heart — a main sign
• Irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias)
• Low blood pressure (hypotension)
• Heart palpitations
• Fainting
In broken heart syndrome, a part of your heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well, while the rest of your heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions. According to the American Heart Association, researchers have found both bad news and good news about this condition.

The bad news: Broken heart syndrome can lead to severe, short-term heart muscle failure. It is important to seek out a medical professional. if you are experiencing the symptoms listed above.

The good news: Broken heart syndrome is usually treatable. Most people who experience it make a full recovery within weeks, and they’re at low risk of it happening again.

Grief Triggers a Variety of Stress Responses

Clearly, broken heart syndrome is a physical response to the stress caused by grief but there are other ways the grief stress response may cause physical distress. Some have to do with inflammation, some have to do with shock response, and some are related to the ways our mental health generally affects our physical health.

If you have experienced a significant loss, some of these may sound very familiar:
• Fatigue and Weakness: Grieving can be exhausting, leading many people to feel constantly tired or worn out. Some may struggle with getting out of bed or find themselves sleeping more than usual.
• Changes in Appetite: Some people lose their appetite and might skip meals, leading to weight loss. Others might eat more as a way of comforting themselves, potentially resulting in weight gain.
• Digestive Problems: This might include nausea, stomach cramps, constipation, or diarrhea.
• Headaches: Stress and tension can lead to frequent or severe headaches.
• Shortness of Breath: Some people report feeling short of breath or having occasional breathing difficulties.
• Muscle Aches and Tension: Muscles might feel tense or sore, especially around the neck, shoulders, or back.
• Changes in Sleep Patterns: Insomnia, nightmares, or oversleeping can occur.
• Decreased Immunity: Chronic stress and sadness can weaken the immune system, making one more susceptible to illnesses.
• Increase in Illness: Due to decreased immunity and neglect of one’s own health, it’s not uncommon to get sick more often during periods of intense grief.
• Physical Sensations: Some people might feel a hollow or empty sensation in their stomach, tightness in their chest or throat, and even oversensitivity to noise.
• Increased Blood Pressure: Stress can elevate blood pressure, which comes with its own set of health risks.
• Hormonal Fluctuations: Prolonged stress can disrupt the normal balance of hormones in the body, which can have various physical repercussions.

Reducing the Physical Effects of Grief

For many of the stress-based, physical effects of grief, the best thing you can do to mitigate physical effects of grief is to fully process the grief itself. This is no small task and will be different for every person. One healthy thing everyone should do is to recognize that grief can happen to anyone, and everyone processes grief differently. At the beginning stages of grief, all we see, and feel is grief. It can be a very narrow focus like being zoomed in too much but as time goes by, we can refocus the lens and see more than hurt or loss.

Truly embrace the fact that your grieving process will be unique to you. You might want to seek out face-to-face support from people who care about you. You might need some solitary time to process your thoughts and emotions. Perhaps you want to look into grief therapy or a support group. The idea is to reach out for the type of help that feels right to you at your stage of grief. Recognize the difference between grief and depression. Grief is situational and should naturally ease over time.

Still, there are certain behaviors that can help anyone who is grieving combat specific physical symptoms caused by grief. Support yourself emotionally by taking care of yourself physically.

For those suffering a loss, one of the first things you may start neglecting is your life force. Your life force is composed of a few basic human needs. Are you drinking enough water? Are you eating? Have you had the energy to go for a walk or move at all? When you are unsure of what do next and you are feeling overwhelmed, feeding your life force can be a great first step.

Start by considering what basic needs you may not have provided for yourself today, like taking a shower or eating a warm meal. Choose healthier foods that feed nutrients into your body and avoid fried and sugary foods as much as possible. Give yourself a natural boost of serotonin by sitting outside. Try to avoid screens and television while trying to fall asleep as this can disrupt the onset of sleep even more.

Talk to your doctor if you are having persistent difficulty sleeping and consider treatments that aid sleep. Loss of sleep can delay our healing mentally and physically.

A mindfulness technique such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, and deep breathing could also reduce the physical symptoms of stress. Any type of physical movement can pull us out of unwanted thoughts. Try connecting with a loved one or a pet.

You may want to consider speaking to a grief counselor to work with to process some of your thoughts and learn ways to live with your grief.

It may also help to understand the different stages of grief. There are five main stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. You may feel like this isn’t real and deny what is happening or feel angry and want to scream at the world. Some people might bargain and ask for more time than what is given. There’s often a period of depression where you are in a low mood and feel hopeless. Lastly, there is acceptance. What many people don’t know about the 5 stages of grief is that it can happen out of order and one stage can last a long time. There is no time period for it to end and even after acceptance, you may still feel the emotions that go along with grief for a lifetime.

It’s like walking into a room full of sparkles. Someone can walk through the room to the other side, but they will never leave the room without the sparkles on them.

The Bottom Line:

If you are feeling physical symptoms during a grieving period, you are not alone. Grief creates a stress response in our bodies, which can manifest in a variety of ways. If you are experiencing chest pain and/or difficulty breathing, you should reach out to a medical provider because you may have something known as “Broken Heart Syndrome.”

Grief is a fluid experience which can shift over the course of a week, a day, or even an hour. It’s important to find the activities and support which will work best for you.

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