The Physical Impact of Grief (And How To Recover)

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Ainsley Lawrence is a freelance writer from the Pacific Northwest. When she is not writing about the ways in which technology impacts our everyday health and wellness, she is frequently lost in a good book.

Everyone experiences grief at some point in their lives. You can grieve the loss of a loved one, a pet, or even normality, which is something many people experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While we largely think of grief as a mental challenge, it can manifest in physical ways as well. Grief can cause long-term pain and discomfort until it is properly dealt with, so while it can absolutely lead to mental health concerns, like anxiety and depression, it’s important to understand that if you’re dealing with physical struggles and you’re not sure why, they might just be the result of unresolved grief. 

Not sure how the physical impact of grief can affect you? Let’s cover some of the most common ways that grief can manifest as well as how you can cope and recover from the grieving process. 

Why Does Grief Affect Your Body? 

Woman curled up on her bed with a pillow over her head, deep in grief

Before we dive into how grief affects the body, it’s crucial to understand why it can manifest as physical symptoms, too. To start, the impact of grief begins in the brain. For example, when a loved one dies, you might start to experience feelings of loneliness and extreme sadness. 

From there, that kind of sadness can expose you to constant stress, anxiety, and depression. On a molecular level, being under that kind of stress can weaken your body’s immune system. That’s why seniors who are experiencing grief or loneliness after the loss of a loved one can start to develop serious health issues. 

However, anyone can experience physical symptoms while they’re grieving. For example, a weakened immune system makes you more susceptible to illness. Also, the stress can also make it difficult to get the sleep your body needs, likely resulting in fatigue and increased levels of inflammation. 

Studies have shown that experiencing grief for a long period can even increase your risk of developing conditions like the following: 

  • Heart disease
  • Asthma
  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Certain types of cancer 

Additionally, the mind-body connection is greater than many people realize. Understanding how grief may impact your body can make it easier for you to recognize the common physical signs of grief. From there, you can start to find effective ways to cope. 

Related: The 20 Best Books To Read On Mental Health

What Are the Physical Symptoms of Grief? 

Everyone grieves differently. However, in order to move forward from grief, the process is typically the same. Unfortunately, while going through the stages of grief, it’s not uncommon to get stuck along the way, which is what makes it easier for negative physical symptoms to arise. 

When you’re holding onto feelings like denial, anger, or depression, your body is under constant stress. As a result, you might start to experience physical symptoms like these: 

  • Digestive issues
  • Pain and discomfort
  • Low energy levels
  • Muscle weakness

You can also experience some of the common physical symptoms associated with anxiety, including trembling, a racing heart, or sweaty/clammy hands. As stated above, the long-term effects of these physical symptoms can weaken your immune system further and make you more susceptible to serious illnesses. 

It can be easy to label the physical symptoms of grief as something else or keep yourself from associating the two. However, acceptance is the final stage of the grieving process for a reason. Not only do you have to accept your loss, but you’ll also have to accept the symptoms you’re going through as part of the process, so you can cope in healthy ways. 

How to Recover From the Physical Impact of Grief

Woman holding a coffee cup, looking out the window over some water

While there is no quick-fix or tried and true game plan to navigate the world of grief, here are some things you can do to help. 

Don’t Rush the Process

The best way to recover from grief is to find ways to cope with your physical and emotional symptoms while working through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. 

Coping the “wrong way” or trying to be further in your grief process actually limits healing and growth. It can lead to things like drug use, alcohol abuse, and dangerous behaviors. People who feel like they aren’t willing to accept or cope with their loss often turn to these things to “numb” their thoughts or to get away from their feelings for a while. It might seem like a short-term solution, but it puts you at risk and can lead to dangerous addictions. 

Get Around The Right People

Some of the worst coping mechanisms people often turn to include isolating themselves, avoiding anything negative, or catastrophizing every small setback. 

Surround yourself with the right people. If there are individuals in your life who fuel your depression or anxiety, or who bring you down, it might be time to separate yourself. While it’s important to remain grounded, choose to spend your time with people who build you up and have a positive attitude. 

Practice Self-Care

You should also practice self-care as much as possible. That looks different for everyone, so consider what makes you feel most relaxed and at peace. Try mindfulness or meditation to stay in the present and focus on breathwork for relaxation. Exercise for a natural mood booster, or get lost for a while in a good book. Even cooking a healthy meal is a form of self-care. It serves as a temporary distraction from your grief and can make you feel good about taking care of your body. 

Get the Help You Need

While adopting healthy coping mechanisms on your own is a great way to work through the stages of grief, you should never feel like you have to go through it on your own. Having a strong support system throughout the grieving process is crucial. 

Lean on family members and friends, and don’t be afraid to express your struggles. It’s okay to ask for help, even if it’s with physical issues or sickness. Simply knowing you’re not alone can improve your well-being and make you stronger. 

If you’re really struggling, consider reaching out to a grief counselor or therapist. They can help you get to the root cause of your depression or anxiety and work through those stages of grief with you, so you’ll stay on the right course and avoid falling into some of the traps that come with unhealthy coping mechanisms. 

There is no timeline for dealing with grief. Everyone works through the stages differently, and you might experience both mental and physical symptoms along the way. Make sure you recognize both for what they are, so you can start coping in healthy ways and reaching out for help when you need it. 

You might also be interested in: Why Sleep Matters To Your Health [And How to Improve Your Sleep]

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