As grief takes hold of us, our minds can become overwhelmed by the sudden and irrevocable change in our lives. It can seem like nothing else exists outside of the all-encompassing pain and sorrow that comes with grief. Whether buying groceries, watching tv, or trying to collect your thoughts, focusing on normal activities can become a huge challenge. Though grief can certainly wreak havoc on our mental health, it doesn’t stop there. As the mind suffers, grief can also exact a heavy toll on our physical health.
Does Grief Affect Physical Health?
While each experience varies, it’s common for people to encounter volatile and destructive effects on their physical health, thanks to grief. The mind is the key to it all. When people are subjected to grief, a five-alarm fire erupts in the brain. Countless synapsis are firing, and the brain simply can’t keep up with all the information coming it's way. In order to quench the flames and bring things back to normal, the brain slows everything down, countering the shock by denying the very existence of the trauma. Because the brain is overwhelmed, many routine signals get dropped. Known as “grief brain,” this phenomenon is responsible for difficulty focusing on simple tasks. Over-taxed and running on fumes, the brain on grief can’t keep up with the body's physical demands either.
Negative Effects of Grief on Physical Health
Many people often wonder which negative effect of grief influences physical health.
As a reaction to the trauma of grief, people can experience several negative effects on their physical health. The following are four of the most common negative effects on the body.
Irregular Eating Habits
When fixated on grief, people can experience a sharp change in their eating habits. It can run the gambit of overeating, losing their appetite, missing meals, or stopping eating altogether. As irregular eating habits take hold, the body can begin to lose more and more muscle mass, causing the body to become weaker and more fatigued. Weight can fluctuate, and digestive problems such as diarrhea, stomach pain, constipation, and nausea can follow.
Nighttime is one of the most challenging times for someone experiencing grief. Not only are they typically subjected to time alone with their thoughts, the trauma of their grief can deprive them of a good night’s rest. With a lack of sleep, cognitive function, physical coordination, and blood pressure can be greatly affected. Some grief-stricken people use sleep as a tool to escape their overwhelming grief. Alternatively, sleeping too much can rob an individual of energy and leave them groggy and lethargic.
Grief can lower the immune system by creating an imbalance in stress hormones. Older adults encountering grief may experience a reduction in neutrophil function, resulting in a lower production of white blood cells. With less white blood cells, it becomes more difficult to stave off any number of colds or infections.
Broken Heart Syndrome
Stress and extreme emotions associated with grief can trigger Takostubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome.” Although temporary, the condition causes the left ventricle to weaken. It has similar symptoms to a heart attack. Grief can generally increase a person’s heart rate and blood pressure.
How to Deal with the Physical Symptoms of Grief
The best way to address the physical symptoms of grief is to take care of yourself. As you journey through your grief process, take some time to consider proactive ways to manage your well-being. Here are three tips to help you look after yourself:
Create a Sleep Routine
Take your nighttime routine seriously by cultivating a bedroom with elements that focus on giving you the best rest possible. For instance, make the room a screen-free space so you can quiet your mind just before bed. Add some Lavender for a soothing scent to help you drift off to dreamland. Ensure that any light is properly blocked. Establishing the same bedtime each night will give you a better chance of satisfying your body’s bio-rythme needs. Lastly, stay away from caffeinated beverages as you draw closer to sleep.
The benefits of exercise when dealing with grief or stress are enormous. Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, which help increase feelings of well-being and happiness. It also is a great way to re-focus your mind by giving you a temporary break from your grief. Light exercise can help your body feel good while reducing stress, such as walking or riding a bike. Enlisting a friend to join you is also a great way to regain normalcy.
Eat Nourishing Foods
While your eating habits may be irregular due to grief, try incorporating some healthy foods into your diet. It doesn’t have to be an abrupt change. Just start small. Try lighter meals and work your way up until you feel like you're eating full meals again, if necessary. As your body gets better nourishment, you’ll start to feel physically better, which may also help improve your mental health.
Managing grief can be extremely challenging. Losing a loved one can take quite a toll on our mental and physical health. While no “magic cure-all” exists to erase grief completely, you can survive it and still flourish. Finding your way through the grief process takes time, patience, and courage. By facing our grief head-on, you can feel the sunshine on your face once again.
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