Can grief make you feel unwell?

Losing someone you deeply care for can trigger an immense range of difficult emotions. But grieving a significant loss often manifests physically in the body too. Understanding common physical symptoms caused by grief can help you cope with these trying reactions. While this framework can help provide structure for the often chaotic grieving process, it's important to understand that not everyone passes neatly through each stage. Some people may skip certain stages entirely in their unique healing journeys after loss.
By illume Editorial Team
Last updated: Oct 12, 2023
3 min read
Advice
How Do I Know If I Am Grieving? Understanding the Natural Process of Grief

Why Grief Impacts Physical Health

Emotional heartache and physical unease frequently go hand in hand. There are several explanations for why grieving can make you feel physically unwell:

  • Stress hormones – Grief releases cortisol and adrenaline, which causes muscle tension, headaches, fatigue.
  • Weakened immune system – Depressed immune function due to grief stress increases susceptibility to illnesses.
  • Poor self-care – When overwhelmed by loss, eating nutritious foods, exercising, and sleeping well often decline.
  • Exacerbated medical issues – Stress aggravates conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, or chronic pain.
  • Overlapping depression – Loss and grieving predispose people to depression which has physical effects.
  • “Broken heart syndrome” – Extreme grief can temporarily alter heart function.

Though mourning takes a toll both emotionally and physically, recognizing common physical symptoms can help you care for body and mind.

Common Physical Symptoms of Grief

Many people going through the grieving process notice these physical issues emerge:

  • Headaches or muscle tension
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Trouble sleeping and changes in appetite
  • Abdominal pain, nausea, or diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath or tightness in chest
  • Heart palpitations or irregular heart rate
  • Decreased immunity and frequent illnesses
  • Increased blood pressure, heart rate, or cholesterol

While concerning if lingering long term, in the context of bereavement these physical symptoms tend to resolve as emotional health improves. Be patient with the needs of your body while healing.

Caring for Your Physical Health During Grief

Focusing on basic self-care often falls by the wayside during the emotionally draining grieving process. Making an effort to attend to physical well-being can improve coping:

  • Maintain a healthy diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein
  • Drink plenty of water and limit caffeine, alcohol, excessive sugar
  • Take brief walks outside in nature daily
  • Stretch muscles and practice relaxing breathing exercises
  • Establish consistent sleep and wake times
  • Limit social media and screens before bedtime
  • Get massages and other body work for muscle tension
  • Take epsom salt baths to ease stress
  • Supplement diet with multivitamin, magnesium, omega-3’s
  • Rest and care for the body so you have strength for the marathon of mourning ahead.

Consider seeking medical advice if symptoms become severe.

When to Seek Help for Physical Problems

Occasional headaches, stomach troubles, or fatigue while grieving are normal and tend to resolve on their own. But more acute or ongoing physical symptoms may need medical assessment to determine appropriate treatment.
See a doctor promptly if you experience:

  • Crushing chest pain, pressure or tightness
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness, weakness or lethargy
  • Heart palpitations lasting over 5 minutes

Severe or persistent physical symptoms could reflect underlying medical conditions requiring attention, like heart disease or thyroid disorders. Getting help sooner improves recovery.

Grieving Takes a Toll on Body and Soul

If the process of grieving a major loss coincides with feeling physically run down and unwell, know you’re not alone. The enormous stress grief places on the body often manifests through exhaustion, strained immune function, digestive issues, or muscle tightness. Prioritize self-care practices like healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping well. With time and compassion, the body and heart begin mending together.