Grief is an emotional response to loss that can lead to physical symptoms as well as mental and behavioral changes.
You might have heard the phrase “sick with grief” or the word “heartache.”
These phrases and words reveal a profound truth about grief. Grief doesn’t just affect your emotional well-being — it can affect your physical health, too.
The profound stress and sadness that accompanies a loss can take a toll on your physical health. Understanding the effects of grief on your mental and physical health can help you know when it’s time to consider seeking professional help.
Grief is the psychobiological response to different types of losses. Psychobiological means you respond in a way that’s influenced by both biology (such as hormones, neurotransmitters, and cells) and your behavior and interactions with the world.
Grief doesn’t only occur as a response after the death of a loved one. You can also experience grief after the loss of anything significant to you. Some of these experiences of loss include:
- receiving a diagnosis of a serious illness
- losing your job
- going through a divorce or a breakup
- ending a friendship
- losing a pet
- experiencing financial hardship or financial change
- living through natural disasters
- experiencing an unwanted disruption of your daily life
Grief causes many
- sleep disruptions
Grief can also trigger or worsen depression and anxiety and may lead to prolonged grief disorder, aka complicated grief disorder. In prolonged grief disorder, you may have depression symptoms, and your grief may not lessen over time.
Stress from grief, as well as grief itself, can cause a number of physical symptoms as well.
Grief can take a toll on the body. Because grief is such a complex response, emotionally and physically, you may notice feeling tired, run-down, or even weak.
The stress from grief can cause emotional and physical exhaustion. It can also lead to:
- higher blood pressure
- increased amounts of inflammation
- pain, including headaches
- digestive disturbances
- changes in weight and eating habits
Your body’s biological responses to grief cause these changes.
Inflammation leads to:
- heart disease
- arthritis and joint disease
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Grief also changes the immune system by reducing T-lymphocyte responses and activating platelets, according to
Grief has different effects on the body in the short term and the long term.
In the first month following the loss of a loved one or other upsetting life event, there’s also an increased chance of broken heart syndrome, aka stress-induced cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
Broken heart syndrome can cause symptoms similar to a heart attack, such as chest pain. Tests will likely show some heart dysfunction but of a different kind than a heart attack.
Immune system changes may take longer than that to affect you. Changes to the immune system generally start
In the long term, grief can change your habits, especially if you’re grieving the loss of a partner.
Over the long term, chronic stress can cause stress-related illnesses and may increase the risk of other health problems.
Practicing techniques to help you cope with grief may help you feel better both emotionally and physically. Consider the following tips.
1. Be gentle with yourself
Remind yourself that you’re not weak or doing a bad job coping with grief. Going through a loss is hard.
Letting go of any self-judgment of how you think you should be handling it can help ease your mind.
2. Nourish yourself
The last thing you might feel like doing may be eating well or resting. But your body and mind need fuel to help carry you through all the physical and mental demands of grief.
Eating nutritious food and taking the time to get extra rest can help your body keep running.
Try gentle exercise to help release feel-good hormones known as endorphins. The mind-body connection that yoga fosters can make yoga for grief particularly useful.
Other ideas include going for a walk or doing any movement that feels good to you.
4. Seek support
Remember that you don’t have to grieve alone. Try reaching out to friends and family.
If you don’t feel comfortable turning to friends or family, there are other options available. There are a number of in-person and online support groups where you can connect with others going through similar situations.
Griefshare.org has a tool that lets you search for a support group near you.
If you’d like to learn more about grief support groups, check out Psych Central’s list of the best online grief support groups in 2022.
5. Don’t be afraid to talk with a doctor
The physical effects of grief are real and raise your chances of experiencing physical and emotional health challenges.
If you notice anything concerning or have any symptoms of heart disease, such as chest pain, it’s crucial that you seek medical attention right away.
6. Consider working with a therapist
Reaching out to a mental health professional to help you process grief can help. They will be able to guide you through your grief and teach you coping skills.
If you don’t know how to find one, the Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration has a free national hotline to connect you with therapy services and treatment.
You can also check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support.
Grief is a complex response to loss that can affect you physically and mentally. It doesn’t only happen after the death of a loved one — you may find yourself grieving after the loss of a job, relationship, or life circumstance.
When you grieve, your body goes through a series of physical changes. You may notice physical symptoms caused by grief, including changes in your sleep, feeling run-down, and getting sick more often.
In some people, grief can cause heart disease or broken heart syndrome. If you think you may have a heart condition, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately.
If you’re grieving, remember you won’t always feel this raw. You can try different ways to cope and care for yourself. In the meantime, keep in mind that you aren’t alone, and there are people you can turn to for support.