Grief can cause changes in your heart, immune system, and sleep patterns. But support is available to help you cope during this time.

Far from just sadness, grief can cause physical and mental changes and symptoms. Understanding how grief may affect you and observing changes in your body may help you manage your grief.

For many, the symptoms will go away as you process your grief, but the grieving process looks different for everyone.

Experiencing loss can be difficult, but you’re not alone. There’s no amount of time that’s right or wrong for you to cope with a loss.

Heart issues

A 2022 review indicates that intense grief may trigger the acute onset of a heart attack. The chances of a heart attack may increase for those who experience cardiovascular issues.

2013 research suggests that stress from grief can cause changes within the cardiovascular system. Blood pressure and pulse rates tend to increase, which triggers blood to thicken and their stress level to rise.

This phenomenon isn’t just limited to losing a loved one but can occur whenever a person feels grief.

Some of these changes may be responsible for broken heart syndrome. Broken heart syndrome is also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

People experience broken heart syndrome due to a surge of stress hormones that cause chest pain and heart rhythm changes similar to what you’d see in a heart attack. It can lead to short-term heart muscle failure.

Impaired immune system

Grief can negatively impact your body’s ability to heal and fight infections. Over 40 years of research studies have shown a link between grief and:

  • heightened inflammatory response
  • lowered antibody response to vaccination
  • changes in autoimmune response and sensitivity

They also noted that the potential development of depression could alter the immune system response.

Sleep issues

When you grieve the passing of a loved one or other major loss, it may negatively affect your sleep. According to a 2020 study, complicated grief, also known as prolonged grief disorder, can cause sleep disturbances.

Findings also indicate that prolonged grief disorder can affect the quality of your sleep at higher rates than post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

You’re not alone. Consider speaking with a mental health professional to support you in regulating your sleep patterns.

Other physical changes

Everyone responds to grief differently, in how they process their emotions and how their body responds to the loss. Some physical changes you may notice include:

  • nausea or vomiting
  • tight, heavy feeling in the throat or chest
  • numbness
  • loss of sensation in the muscles
  • headaches
  • dizziness
  • fatigue

Other psychiatric issues

Grief can lead to the development of several different psychological conditions. Some potential conditions you may experience include:

You may also experience feelings such as:

  • anger
  • shock
  • guilt
  • denial
  • yearning
  • helplessness
  • sadness

Many of these feelings get lumped into the five stages of grief, which provides a basic guide or reference to what you might go through during a loss.

Changes in thoughts

When you go through grief, you will likely experience changes in how you think, remember, and process information. Changes to thoughts you might undergo may include:

Researchers have noted that losing a loved one is the greatest stressor you may experience. You can experience grief related to the loss and new stressors related to your changing role and taking on new responsibilities.

Studies looking at the effects of social support for people who suffered a sudden or violent loss of a loved one showed any loss of a loved one could lead to stress. When the loss is due to violence or is sudden and unexpected, you may experience even more stress.

Grief related to other losses can also cause stress. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), major changes to daily life can trigger or cause grief, which can then cause distress.

Stress, no matter the cause, affects physical and mental health. The American Heart Association links chronic stress to:

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • changes in appetite
  • decreased fertility
  • sleep problems
  • upset stomach
  • depression
  • anxiety disorders

Depression and grief

Depression and grief share several symptoms and signs.

In most cases, when you grieve, you will experience symptoms similar to depression, such as:

  • fatigue
  • changes in sleep
  • loss of interest in enjoyable activities
  • trouble concentrating

You might find it hard to distinguish between grief and depression in yourself or others. Some things to consider to help you determine if grief has turned to depression include:

  • no longer can feel pleasure
  • noticeable impairment in functioning
  • continued isolation from others
  • unable to cope with the pain
  • thoughts of suicide not related to reuniting with a loved one

If you suspect you or a loved one is experiencing depression, you may consider talking with a doctor or reaching out to friends and loved ones. Depression often requires some form of treatment to feel better, and how you respond to it will be different compared to grief.

Everyone grieves a loss in their own way and in their own time.

Even if you don’t seek professional healthcare, you might find that reaching out to a support network helps. This doesn’t mean you need to talk or process your feelings with someone. A strong support network can help you:

  • take care of everyday tasks, like meals or errands
  • listen when you need to talk
  • help look after the kids
  • lend a hand in getting final arrangements in place or other needs

If you need more support or want to talk with a professional, you may find that starting at a trusted doctor’s office and asking for a referral could be a good starting point.

You could look for bereavement counseling in your area. Bereavement counseling helps you process your grief and reduce stress levels. If you can’t find a bereavement counselor, most psychiatrists should be able to help.

If you feel like your grief is affecting your day-to-day life, you may consider seeking treatment, such as:

  • cognitive behavior therapy
  • talk therapy
  • medication

Grief can cause several changes in how you think and feel as well as physical sensations. The changes tend to be temporary and go away as you process your grief.

The changes you experience can include impaired thinking, sadness, increased stress levels, and potentially heart-related issues, such as having a heart attack. You may also experience changes in how you sleep.

When you experience grief, having a strong support network can help. This can include family, friends, and professionals, such as grief counselors or psychiatrists.

If you or a loved one has experienced a grief-triggering loss, you can take one or more of these steps:

  • allow yourself time to go through the grieving process
  • learn more about what to expect with grief
  • reach out to friends and family for emotional as well as other kinds of support
  • find a professional to talk with for formal treatment
  • learn about the signs of depression and other psychological conditions