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Grief's Physical Impact

Grief is often described as an empty feeling in the chest, or the deep sorrow that you experience following loss. Grief is somehow universal and personal all at once, because most people have dealt with loss but everyone grieves loss in their own way.

visualization of grief keyword in google

In fact, the variations in individual grief symptoms cause people to wonder if their symptoms are "normal". This is likely why the most Googled questions related to grief are queries like "why grief makes you so angry", "why grief makes you tired" and "what are grief attacks". The concept of "grief" is sometimes misunderstood, because people believe that it's purely emotional and mental, when in reality, it has many physical impacts.

People grieve the losses of jobs, dreams, friendships, and most often, the death of a loved one. Grief-stricken individuals report symptoms that include fatigue, aches and pains (including headaches, backaches and neck pain), tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, forgetfulness, inability to focus, appetite changes, digestive issues, weakened immune system, and more. Other physical symptoms include overwhelming tiredness and exhaustion, restlessness and anxiety attacks.

While many of these symptoms are normal, they can be harmful if left untreated and some physical symptoms can be fatal. The intensity of grief (and the physical symptoms that come with it) is often linked to the magnitude of the loss, and according to the Holmes And Rahe Stress Scale, the loss of a spouse ranks as the most stressful life event that can possibly occur. This causes something called the the "Widowhood Effect".

"Researchers found that widows and widowers were more likely to die than people whose spouses were still living, on average. The effect was strongest in the first three months after a spouse died, when they had a 66% increased chance of dying." (Source).

The Widowhood Effect is attributed to the combination of elevated levels of stress and environmental factors. Grief causes individuals to become vulnerable to psychological and physical illnesses. For example, the loss of a spouse causes stress, which then weakens the immune systems and allows environmental factors (i.e. exposure to dangerous viruses/molds/gases) to cause bodily harm. Furthermore, many of the physical symptoms of grief are linked to emotional symptoms due to the way the brain processes pain.

"Scans carried out by University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) scientists showed that the part of the brain that deals with physical pain, the anterior cingulate cortex, processes emotional pain, too." (Source).

This is why many people are diagnosed with heart problems, such as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, following loss. Since the anterior cingulate cortex is processing grief, the brain may "mix up" the signals, causing heart pain or palpitations. Additionally, grief often triggers mental health disorders like depression, PTSD or anxiety, which can worsen symptoms. Someone who's depressed will often find that they have no appetite and will develop aches and pains due to their inactivity.

doctor looking at brain scan

Furthermore, people go through these 5 stages of grief following loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Each stage causes unique reactions ranging from intense anger, sadness, shock, guilt, loneliness and relief. All of these feelings are valid, and it's important to remember to avoid comparing your journey to the journey of another.

You may not process your emotional pain in the same way, and that's okay. These physical, mental and emotional symptoms are all normal, but it's very important to talk to a doctor to ensure that you properly manage your symptoms and maintain your health. The primary way to "treat" grief is to speak with a therapist or other mental health professional who can help to find a personalized path of recovery.

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