When Grief Hurts
By Adrian Sparrow
Grief can be one of the most isolating situations we all experience at some point, yet no two people mourn the same way. Dozens of emotions send us on a rollercoaster full of ups and downs and twists and turns. Your memory is unreliable, you don’t feel like eating, and simply getting through the day can feel as challenging as climbing a mountain. A few of the feelings associated with grief are sadness, anger, guilt, depression, confusion, resentment, relief, hope, fear, anxiety, frustration, and panic- with no way of knowing what comes next. Though grief is an emotional experience, it can also cause profound physical pain. If it isn’t adequately addressed, the physical symptoms of grief may lead to long-term consequences.
When you perceive a threat, hormones including adrenaline and cortisol rush through your body to give you a burst of energy and prepare for action (commonly known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response). Your pulse quickens, your blood pressure rises, and your pupils dilate. In cases of chronic stress where stressors are constantly present, like processing the loss of a close caregiver, the fight-or-flight response remains. Long-term exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can lead to an increased risk of health problems, wreaking havoc on every part of the body.
When you’re in the middle of your grieving process, whether for the loss of a job or the death of a loved one, your body is physically reacting to stress. Your heart aches, and you might feel like you were punched in the gut. “Research shows that emotional pain activates the same regions of the brain as physical pain”(source). Physical symptoms of grief can include, but are not limited to: Headaches, dizziness, sun sensitivity, fatigue, heart palpitations, throat or chest pain, stomach pain, increased inflammation, nausea, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, lowered immunity, back and joint pain, sleep disruption and insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, cognitive ‘fog,’ muscle weakness, tension, constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux, restlessness, and dry mouth. You might experience a few of these symptoms at once and another set of pains later in the day as your brain works hard to process the loss.
Grief is a complex emotion to navigate. Memory and sad thoughts come and go as a natural part of the grieving process. Usually, you have a period of respite in between, unlike depression which is a persistent low mood. Someone experiencing grief usually retains their self-esteem and sense of humor.
Sometimes, natural thoughts and feelings can take hold in our vulnerable state and lead to a state of “persistent, pervasive grief” that doesn’t get better on its own. Complicated grief includes symptoms of intense sadness and a lack of desire or interest over a year later, and can come if a person is unable to mourn with others or had a complicated relationship with the deceased. Your brain cannot accept the reality of the loss, and this prolonged grief can increase the risk of long-term mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
Takotsubo Syndrome, or ‘broken-heart syndrome,’ is a form of heart disease that comes from overwhelming emotional grief, fear, anger, or shock. Learning your spouse has died can cause this condition, for example. This sudden stress results in severely weakened heart muscles. It causes symptoms similar to a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath. A heart attack is a lack of oxygen to the heart, resulting in sometimes irreversible damage. Conversely, the cardiac cells of people who experience broken-heart syndrome are paralyzed by adrenaline and other stress hormones. The heart muscles often recover quickly within days or weeks, leaving little to no scar tissue or damage.
Although grief can feel overwhelming, this is the time to seek support from others who have experienced similar losses. Rest and self-care are critical factors in processing grief on your own, and support from family and friends can help you get through this challenging stage in your life. In cases of complicated grief, psychotherapy can help ease symptoms. If physical symptoms interfere with everyday life or you experience them for more than a year, keep a diary of physical symptoms and emotional triggers to show your doctor, who can recommend the best course of treatment for your unique situation.