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How does grief affect the mind and body?

When someone you love passes away, it can feel like the world is going to end. Even when you are prepared for the impending death, you can never predict how you’ll feel when it actually happens.

Some people feel completely numb or even go into shock. Other people refuse to believe what has happened and try to ‘bargain’ their way out of the grief. Some people sob for days on end, while others act like nothing has happened. It’s important to remember that all of these reactions are completely normal.

Your emotions are controlled by several different regions in your brain.[i] Your limbic system and pre-frontal cortex are responsible for regulating your emotions and organising your thoughts. However, when you are experiencing grief, a load of hormones and neurotransmitters flood into these parts of your brain. You might feel like you ‘don’t know whether you’re coming or going,’ calm one minute and hysterical the next.

Your overall thought processes slow down, making it hard to concentrate or think clearly, and your hunger and sleep signals are likely to go haywire. Just remember that there is no ‘right or wrong’ way to grieve – everyone is different, and no two situations can be compared.


What are the symptoms of grieving?

Grief can cause all kinds of strange symptoms, some of which you might not expect to be associated with bereavement.[ii] People often refer to the 7 stages of grief, but generally symptoms of grieving can include:

  • Feeling hyper or restless – It’s not uncommon to feel like you’re bouncing off the walls when you are in grief.
  • Trouble concentrating – It can be hard to focus on the task at hand as your mind wanders.
  • Rumination – Your mind might race as you go over and over what happened, and even play out scenarios in which things could have gone differently.
  • Trouble sleeping – This is one of the most common symptoms of grief. People tend to experience disturbed sleep, such as insomnia or oversleeping. You might even start having nightmares.
  • Loss of appetite – Some grieving people report having no appetite at all and have to force themselves to eat anything.
  • Overeating – However, others experience overeating, as they consume food to dull the pain, leading to weight gain.
  • Withdrawing from social situations – While some people want to be surrounded by loved one or distracted with social engagements, others withdraw into solitude.
  • A sense of isolation and feeling alone – It can seem like no one understands what you’re going through, and you might feel completely alone. This can exacerbate social withdrawal.
  • Substance abuse – It is very common to turn to alcohol and drugs when a loved one passes away, which can lead to substance abuse and addiction issues.

Grief is a natural response to the loss of a loved one – it isn’t an illness or something that can be ‘treated.’ While you might benefit from speaking to a grief counsellor or joining a support group, the only remedy for grief is time. Eventually, you will find your ‘new normal.’ The pain and loss will always be with you, but in time you will learn to live with the feelings.


Physical effects of bereavement

While grief is a natural response to a negative event, it can have real effects on your long-term health.[iii] Some of the symptoms listed in the above section affect your mind and body, but there are also some documented physical effects of grief.

  • Grief and heart health – You have probably heard grief described as “a broken heart” or ‘heartache,” but this isn’t just a turn of phrase. The stress hormones released when you are grieving can actually cause cardiac issues.[iv]Acute stress, such as that brought on by the death of a loved one, can cause stress cardiomyopathy. A study has found that the chances of having an acute heart attack increase by more than 20 times in the 24 hours after someone you love passes away. Also common? Blood clots, increased blood pressure, and even ‘broken heart syndrome,’ which mimics the symptoms of a heart attack.
  • Grief and a lowered immune system – When you experience a tremendous amount of stress, your body goes into survival mode. As a result, your immune system can suffer.[v] When your immune system is weak, you are more susceptible to infections, illnesses, and just generally feeling ‘run down.’ Colds, flu, headaches, and angina (severe chest pains) are all common.
  • Grief and exhaustion – Grief is hard. It makes every task seem monumental and causes physical aches and pains. So, it’s no surprise that it can also make you feel exhausted, making it hard to get even your most routine tasks done. It’s normal to feel extreme tiredness, physically fragile, shaky, and weak.

Here are some other physical sensations you might experience while grieving:

  • Tightness in your chest
  • A catch in your throat
  • An upset or ‘hollow’ feeling stomach
  • Trouble breathing, or hitching breath
  • Dry mouth
  • Sensitivity to noise
  • Aches and pains all over your body

Emotional effects of bereavement

It’s impossible to list all of the myriad ways that bereavement can affect your emotions.[vi] Just know that if you are experiencing a whirlwind of different emotions after a loved one passes away, it is normal. However, if you begin to experience thoughts of suicide or self-harm, get in touch with your GP immediately, or call the Samaritans on 116 123.

You will likely feel ‘out of sorts,’ with chaotic feelings and emotions that are all over the place. At first, your feelings are likely to be very intense and even overwhelming, but the feelings tend to subside over time. Some of the most common feelings include:

  • Memory loss
  • Brain fog (muddled and confused thoughts, trouble recalling information when you need it)
  • Rage or extreme anger, sometimes aimed at the deceased
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Anxiety about your own mortality
  • ‘Irrational’ worries
  • Relief, usually if the person passed away after battling an illness
  • Irritability and a ‘short temper’
  • Numbness and detachment
  • Rumination – going over the circumstances leading to death over and over
  • Loneliness and a feeling that ‘no one can understand’ what you’re going through

How long does grief last?

When you’re in the thick of the early grieving process, it can feel like the pain will never end. While you might be eager for the initial pain and sadness to subside, you might also dread the passing of time, because each day marks another day that your loved one is gone. As a result, some people find a sort of comfort in their grief.

You might wonder “how long does grief last?” The honest answer is that there is no answer. Everyone grieves differently, and you might have feelings of grief and loss that come and go for the rest of your life. Birthdays, Christmas, and anniversaries can all trigger sadness and pain all over again, especially on milestone occasions. Just remember that it is normal to yearn and long for your loved one, and to be gentle with yourself.

If your grieving is negatively impacting your life more than six months after the loss, you may have Prolonged Grief Syndrome (also called Complicated Grief).[vii] Speak with your GP if your symptoms of bereavement are getting worse, rather than easing, over time.


Remember that everyone experiences grief in their own way

Everyone goes through the grieving process in their own way, and there is no ‘right or wrong way’ to grieve. Some people find great comfort in looking at photos or mementoes and talking at length about their loved one. They have cremation jewellery made, and decorate their home with pictures of the deceased. However, others prefer to avoid reminders and only bring up their loss at certain times. Some people may cry and break down, while others seem cool and collected.

Just remember that everyone goes through this process in their own way. Eventually, the acute pain will pass, but your memories and love will live on forever.


Reference list

Gupta, S. (2015). How Grief Can Make You Sick. [online] EverydayHealth.com. Available at: https://www.everydayhealth.com/news/how-grief-can-make-you-sick/ [Accessed 16 Sep. 2020].

Hairston, S. (2019). How Grief Shows Up In Your Body. [online] WebMD. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/special-reports/grief-stages/20190711/how-grief-affects-your-body-and-mind [Accessed 18 Sep. 2020].

Henry Ford Health System Staff (2018). How Coping with Grief Can Affect Your Brain. [online] www.henryford.com. Available at: https://www.henryford.com/blog/2018/06/how-coping-with-grief-can-affect-your-brain#:~:text=When%20you [Accessed 16 Sep. 2020].

Marie Curie (2020). Physical symptoms of grief. [online] Marie Curie. Available at: https://www.mariecurie.org.uk/help/support/bereaved-family-friends/dealing-grief/physical-symptoms-grief [Accessed 16 Sep. 2020].

Mayo Clinic Staff (2017). Complicated grief – Symptoms and causes. [online] Mayo Clinic. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/complicated-grief/symptoms-causes/syc-20360374 [Accessed 18 Sep. 2020].

mh4rc (2018). Impacts of grief – Mental Health Resources for Carers. [online] IMPACTS OF GRIEF. Available at: http://mhr4c.com.au/grief-and-loss/impacts-of-grief/ [Accessed 16 Sep. 2020].

Pfizer Medical Team (2018). 5 Ways Grief May Affect Your Health. [online] Get Healthy Stay Healthy. Available at: https://www.gethealthystayhealthy.com/articles/5-ways-grief-may-affect-your-health [Accessed 18 Sep. 2020].

Pritchard, E.-L. (2018). 20 physical, behavioural and emotional symptoms of bereavement and how to overcome them. [online] Country Living. Available at: https://www.countryliving.com/uk/wellbeing/a21549981/physical-emotional-behavioural-symptoms-grief-bereavement-how-overcome/ [Accessed 16 Sep. 2020].

Ryback, R. (2017). The Ways We Grieve. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-truisms-wellness/201702/the-ways-we-grieve [Accessed 16 Sep. 2020].


Sources

[i] https://www.henryford.com/blog/2018/06/how-coping-with-grief-can-affect-your-brain

[ii] https://www.everydayhealth.com/news/how-grief-can-make-you-sick/

[iii] https://www.mariecurie.org.uk/help/support/bereaved-family-friends/dealing-grief/grieving-your-way

[iv] https://www.webmd.com/special-reports/grief-stages/20190711/how-grief-affects-your-body-and-mind

[v] https://www.gethealthystayhealthy.com/articles/5-ways-grief-may-affect-your-health

[vi] https://www.countryliving.com/uk/wellbeing/a21549981/physical-emotional-behavioural-symptoms-grief-bereavement-how-overcome/

[vii] https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/complicated-grief/symptoms-causes/syc-20360374

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