How grief can affect your body

4 min read

The physical symptoms of grief

  • Grief increases stress levels in your body, which can lead to physical discomfort and illness.

  • The most common symptoms among bereaved people are digestive issues, sleep disorders, pain, and “brain fog.”

  • As grief has no set timeline, it is hard to predict how long these symptoms will last.

  • Seek medical help for relief from your symptoms, and step up your self-care if you can, to support your overall health.

Sometimes the pain of a loved one’s death goes far beyond mental and emotional anguish. Grief can affect all aspects of our lives, including our physical health—and it can take a profound toll the body.

The way grief affects the body varies from person to person, but grief-related ailments all stem from the same source: stress.

Major life changes often temporarily increase your stress levels, which can lead to a number of health problems. Everything from losing your job to getting a divorce can create a stress response, as can joyous events like welcoming a new baby.

In grief, however, the life change is particularly traumatic. And since grieving is a long process, the high stress levels can persist for extended periods—which is even more taxing to the body.

While not everyone will experience the same physical symptoms in grief, it’s important to realize how this kind of stress can affect you.

How grief and stress can show up in the body

As an extreme stressor, grief can lead to heart-related issues, aches and pains throughout the body, lowered immunity, digestive problems, insomnia, and so-called “brain fog.” How these symptoms affect different people can vary widely.

In terms of cardiovascular health, grief-related stress can put you at a higher risk of high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, chest pains, or even heart attack.

There is a condition known as broken heart syndrome, in which patients experience sudden chest pain and shortness of breath, mimicking the symptoms of a heart attack. But this is a temporary heart issue that is treatable and usually reverses itself within days or weeks.

Stress can also suppress the immune system, so when we are in grief we may get sick more often. Aches and pains like tension headaches are also common, because when the body is in emotional distress it is extra sensitive to sensations like pain.

Cognitively, you might find yourself easily confused or lacking concentration, sometimes called brain fog. For example, you may find yourself forgetting names and dates, losing your train of thought when you’re telling a story—or reading the same email over and over again at work, trying to absorb the information.

The most common symptoms

We all grieve in our own way. And similarly, grief affects each person’s body uniquely. But there are some commonalities among people who have experienced loss.

The most prevalent complaints are digestive and sleep issues—which makes sense, because the digestive system and the sleep cycle are highly reactive to stress.

A common complaint among bereaved people is a feeling that there is a hole or an emptiness in their stomach. Other grief-related digestive issues range from nausea and queasiness to constipation and diarrhea—and can include more extreme issues like heartburn, acid reflux, weight fluctuations, or even irritable bowel syndrome.

A common complaint among bereaved people is a feeling that there is a hole or an emptiness in their stomach.

Sleep can also be severely disrupted. You might find that you can’t get through the night without waking up constantly. Or you’re chronically fatigued but sleep just never finds you.

If these were already things that you struggle with, grief can exacerbate them, making these important human needs—nutrition and sleep—a massive challenge during this already difficult time in your life.

When does it get better?

Just as grief doesn’t have a specific timeline, it’s hard to predict how long grief-related physical issues will last.

In the aftermath of your loved one’s death, the symptoms will be at their most extreme. But they typically lessen over time.

However, some people do experience symptoms cyclically—they might have a good couple of months when they’re feeling better, then have a setback as grief returns to the forefront of their mind. This is completely normal, and only means that you have more grieving to do.

As you observe your own patterns, be gentle with yourself. Remember that even though you cannot direct or predict how grief will express itself, it is a process that is moving you toward greater acceptance and health. In the meantime, get the medical care you need as symptoms appear or reappear. And if you find that your grief feels like too much for you to handle, then don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional. Grief counselors can help you come up with a specialized plan to cope with the acute suffering you’re experiencing.

Because grief can throw our lives into chaos, it’s important to be aware of all the ways it may be affecting you mentally, emotionally, and physically—and to give yourself as much TLC as you can.

Taking walks outside, keeping a regular bedtime, eating nutritious foods, and drinking lots of water are self-care staples that can be especially powerful when grieving. As much as you can manage, try to incorporate these into your day to bolster your health. And as always, proceed with patience and kindness toward yourself ●