Grief is an extremely complex experience that changes and evolves over time. Far too often it seems, we simplify the concept of grief down to just an emotional state and the emphasis is almost always placed upon the mental impact it can have on us. But as we know, mental and physical struggles are often linked and the grieving process is no exception to this.
As tempting as it may be to just focus on our mental wellbeing while navigating grief and loss, we cannot truly nurture our health and deal with grief in a healthy way if we are not taking the physical symptoms into account. In fact, more often than not our minds and bodies are not behaving independently of one another, but rather each one feeding and sharpening the other. So when we go through periods of difficulty, stress or trauma, it is only natural that we should consider looking out for our physical symptoms as well as our mental health.
Energy Loss and Fatigue
One of the main physical symptoms that many of us are likely to feel during times of grief and loss is tiredness and fatigue. On a practical level, this can often come down to our sleeping patterns. Either we’re sleeping too much or too little depending on how our bodies react to stress and loss. Some find it easier to “sleep off” whatever is bothering them whereas others are kept awake all night and both can have an impact on our energy levels.
However, there is also another kind of fatigue that we can experience during times of grief and this is usually to do with burnout. In the early stages of grief we are usually in the middle of organising a funeral, which on top of our other duties can be menatally and physically exhausting.
Once that is over, however, it is not unusual for some people to seek solace or distraction to cope with their loss, especially if the person that died was someone they lived with or saw on a regular basis. Overcompensating for this by filling your time with activities is not uncommon and this can add to the fatigue that you may already be feeling after the funeral has taken place.
While slowing down and resting may feel like the last thing you want to be doing during a state of grief, it is important to remember that your body needs rest and recuperation if you are going to manage your grief in a healthy way.
Grieving can put an immense amount of both short term and long term stress on your body and it’s not uncommon for weight fluctuations to occur throughout the grieving process. While on the surface it may seem as though gaining or losing weight during bereavement is just a symptom of losing one’s appetite or stress eating, the reality is a little more complicated than that and has very much to do with the physical changes your digestive system and body go through when placed under extreme stress.
Apart from acting as the ultimate appetite destructor, acute stress affects your digestive system in the same way that it would in a fight or flight situation. In other words, temporarily shutting down your digestive system and causing you to lose weight.
However, grief can be a lengthy process and after a while the body begins to use its digestive system as a chronic stress response by storing extra fat in your body, particularly in your stomach area. This is common enough that some have even nicknamed the experience “grief gut”.
Of course, these physical responses are also often coupled with a genuine lack of desire to eat due to emotional pain or later on using food as a coping mechanism. When you’re grieving, it is not uncommon to spend all your efforts on completing the bare minimum every day and so healthy eating and exercise may be put aside for less taxing alternatives.
Of course, keeping up with regular exercise or eating healthy foods can feel like an impossible task at times like these, but trying to sustain healthy habits can do wonders for our mental health. For example, exercise is a natural way to help the body fight stress and healthy foods help energise our bodies in order to combat fatigue. The key is to not feel guilty over these long term physical changes and shift your focus to using your body to help support your emotions and mental health during the process.
Illness and Physical Pain
Words such as “heartache” and “pain” are often used to describe our emotional state, not just when we grieve but during times of extreme hardship in general. But perhaps not many of us consider the fact that pain is not just an emotional experience when we grieve.
In fact, the physical effects that grief has on our bodies and the pain it can cause is so severe in some cases that it is thought a person is 21 times more likely to have a heart attack the day after a death in the family.
People having suffered losses of extremely close family members such as children have reported feeling the physical sensation of a weight pressing down on their chests making it sometimes difficult to breath. Also known as “broken heart syndrome”, some studies have found that these sensations behave as a mechanism for protecting the heart from the surge of adrenaline that is often synonymous with grief.
In some cases, these sensations can manifest themselves as symptoms resembling that of a cold, flu or bug, with people feeling extreme nausea or feverishness. Sometimes these symptoms are not just a placebo effect either. When we grieve, our immune system is usually lowered and sickness is far more likely. In some cases, particularly amongst elderly people, grief induced sickness can even lead to a shorter life expectancy with conditions such as reduced function of neutrophils.
In the majority of cases, these physical symptoms are harmless, but for someone suffering from grief for the first time or suffering with the loss of an extremely close friend or relative, these physical feelings of pain can be very stressful. Of course, if your symptoms are concerning you then it never hurts to seek professional medical advice, but know that there is nothing shameful or dramatic in feeling the physical pain of loss.
It can often surprise people how physical grief can be. It is hard enough for people to talk about and admit their struggles when it is only the mental and emotional side of grief that they are experiencing, but when the physical component is so under discussed or understood, it just leads to more stigma. This is especially true when effects of grief last a long time and those who have suffered a loss feel the pressure to “be over it” after a certain point.
Understanding all the experiences that come with the grieving process makes us more equipped to deal with them, especially once we understand the link between the physical and the mental. Accepting the reality that grief can and will be difficult, leaning on those you trust for support and not feeling guilty for what is a natural part of life are all important and essential steps in the process.