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Grief Can Have Very Real Physical Symptoms

We all know the loss of a loved one can leave a devastating wake of emotional destruction. However, the thing no one tells you is that grief can manifest itself physically as well, making you sick, causing you pain and leaving you exhausted. With Emotional Wellness Month just passing in October, we began to explore how grief goes beyond the emotional impacts, and invades the realm of very real physical symptoms. Both go hand in hand. There are techniques you can try to improve your emotional wellness, such as mindfulness, that can help you decrease stress, depression and anxiety. On top of that, it’s extremely helpful to take part in bereavement services after facing the loss of a loved one in Alameda County and elsewhere.

There are many physical symptoms of grieving, including:

  • Digestive problems
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Sore muscles
  • Chest pain

Let’s explore the many ways in which grief can present itself physically.


One of the more common early signs of grief is that feeling of being extremely tired all the time. It’s that can’t-get-out-of-bed tired that may keep you from getting up and doing all the things you used to do every day. It’s physically exhausting to grieve, so give your body the time it needs to rest, as your body may feel fragile and tired. According to psychologist Catherine M. Sanders, PhD, bereaved people can get so weak that they can actually feel like they have the flu.

Difficulty Thinking Clearly

The cognitive effects of grief often times interfere with your ability to think clearly, to make wise decisions and to problem solve. Studies have shown that short-term memory can be affected for those who are grieving. When long-term complicated grief is involved, memory is impacted even more, as people can remember anything as long as the memory involves the deceased loved one. Studies also show that people who are grieving suffer a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), impacting their memory as well. Overall, depression, PTSD, and anxiety all have a hand in major memory issues, sometimes causing sufferers to forget even the simplest of tasks.

Anxiety, Depression and Substance Abuse

Prolonged grief can bring on anxiety attacks and depression, which may lead to drug and alcohol abuse. Anxiety is a common component of the grieving process, to be sure; however, if symptoms do not lessen after six months following the loss of a loved one, you could have an anxiety disorder or be experiencing complicated grief. According to Psycom, symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:

  • Excessive worry
  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Sleep disruption
  • Muscle tension
  • Phobias
  • Social anxiety

People experiencing anxiety may also suffer from panic attacks, characterized by shortness of breath, chest pain, fear of dying, a feeling of choking, nausea, dizziness, and heat or cold sensations.

Unresolved grief and depression can lead to a substance abuse problem. Many people try to deal with their feelings of loss by self-medicating with  alcohol or drugs. However, rather than take away the pain, these substances act as depressants, often intensifying negative emotions like shame or sadness.

Heart Health and Immunity

Cardiac problems can arise as part of the grief process thanks to the release of stress hormones. Some people can have vulnerable cardiovascular and immune systems when grieving, leading to increased rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Acute stress can also cause cardiomyopathy, a form of cardiac illness.

One study found that the incidence of heart attack is increased 21-fold within 24 hours of the death of a loved one, then declines steadily with each day after that. Another study found that older grieving people are more likely to develop infections due to a weakened immune system.

Coping and Treatment

Potential health consequences related to grieving are a real concern among caregivers and healthcare providers today. While grief is a natural response to permanent and impactful loss, it should lessen with time. It may take months. It may make you sick. The important thing to remember is that it should lessen ever so slightly over time. If it doesn’t, it’s important to reach out and tell someone — a loved one, a doctor, a therapist. No one really gets over a big loss, especially when it’s a parent or child.

But the importance of self-care cannot be stressed enough. You must take good care of yourself so you can stay well. Eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of water, rest, get exercise and get outside for Vitamin D. Address your grief head-on and participate in support groups, counseling, workshops — whatever it takes to get out and talk about how you’re feeling and deal with it in a healthy way.

Contact Pathways Home Health and Hospice

We offer several bereavement services to help survivors cope with the loss of a loved one. Please contact us today to learn more so you can get started on the path to healing.