How Grief Manifests in the Body

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A good friend recently lost her mother to a sudden and massive heart attack. While working her way through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, she told me she felt like her body was “weighed down with stones.” Physical symptoms like this can occur at any time in the grief process. It’s scary, but natural. If you are going through the loss of a loved one, a job, a pet, or an emotional life change, here are some symptoms to look for, and some tools to help you heal.

Fatigue

The “to-do” tasks during a loss or grieving period can leave you feeling exhausted. You may not be able to sleep. Conversely, you may get 7 hours of sleep, but don’t feel rested or refreshed. This is how the emotional strain of grieving manifests as fatigue. To relive fatigue, you may need to revisit your sleep environment, find a routine or ritual that helps you relax, or try relaxation exercises and stretching. For more information, see The Sleep Foundation.

Aches and Pains

As my friend described above, grief can show up in your body and make you hurt. The weight of grief and stress can cause your body to remain tense (in “fight or flight” alert) in response. Science can back this up with research that has found that grief “aggravates symptoms of physical pain.” To counteract pain, relax the body and mind with meditation, a massage, or gentle stretching. If pain persists, seek a doctor’s advice and avoid self-medication.

Tightness in Chest/Shortness of Breath

If you can’t breathe or feel tightness in your chest, it could be anxiety tightening its grip on your body. Breathing exercises can help; try this 5-minute breathing technique [link to your video on YouTube] to feel centered and calm. However, if tightness in your chest suddenly becomes severe or chronic, it may be a cardiac issue and require the attention of a doctor.

Stress Headaches

A stress headache has been described as a “tight band around your forehead.” It is one of the most common pain manifestations of grief. To counter a stress headache, try hot or cold compresses (whatever feels best to you) on your forehead for 5-10 minutes several times a day. A relaxing bath may help, too. Be aware of your posture and the pressure points you are putting on your body, and avoid eyestrain, which can lead to headaches.

Appetite

Food is deeply connected to our physical and emotional health. When we experience the emotional upheaval of grief, it can send eating habits into extremes; you might avoid food, or you might overeat to deaden your emotions. To counteract these reactions and get the nutrition you need, identify your food triggers, make the best food choices you can make under the circumstances, and reach out to others to talk through your feelings.

Weakened Immune System

Grief makes you emotionally vulnerable, and that can impact you physically. Self-care is a challenge when you are going through the grief process, and if one or more of the symptoms above manifests in your body, it can also compromise your immune system. Be aware of when you feel “run down” and treat your symptoms with the tips mentioned above.

Moving through loss and/or great change in your life can be overwhelming.  It can help to be aware of the stages of grief and how you can aid your body and mind as you move through the process.  Please remember you can reach out to family, friends, loved ones, your community of faith, or expert care.  I would love to hear from you about your experiences and how you are maneuvering through the grieving process. 

Grief is one of the universal life experiences that we all share. You are not alone!

Hope Knosher