Can Grief Make You Physically Sick?

The loss of a loved one is devastating on every level.
By illume Editorial Team
Last updated: Jul 26, 2023
10 min read
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You expect the emotional anguish and sadness. But you may be surprised by the physical toll that grief can take on the body. So can the intense emotions from bereavement actually make you sick? In many cases, unfortunately yes.

Grief affects us holistically – body, mind and spirit. Let’s explore the common physical symptoms after a loss, why they happen and how to care for your health during this difficult time.

Common Physical Symptoms of Grief

Grief can manifest physically in a number of ways. Here are some of the more common physical symptoms that the bereaved may experience:

  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Upset stomach, nausea or changes in appetite
  • Headaches or body aches and pains
  • Tightness or heaviness in the chest
  • Shortness of breath and dizziness
  • Weakened immune system leading to frequent illness
  • Low energy and lethargy
  • Heart palpitations

Much of this is related to the biological stress response. Let’s look at why these physical reactions occur.

Why Grief Affects the Body

There are several reasons why grief creates physical distress and illness symptoms:

  • Stress hormones – Bereavement triggers the release of fight-or-flight hormones like cortisol into the bloodstream. This can cause muscle tension, headaches, stomach upset, and more.
  • Lowered immunity – Stress and grief wear down the immune system, reducing your ability to fight viruses, infections and disease.
  • Disrupted sleep – Insomnia or fitful sleep caused by grief leaves the body exhausted and susceptible to sickness.
  • Poor self-care – In the depths of despair, people often neglect caring for their basic physical needs like eating and exercise. This takes a toll.
  • “Broken heart syndrome” – Studies show grief can temporarily impact the heart muscle and rhythm, especially in older people or those with pre-existing heart disease.
  • Mental health issues – Bereavement puts people at risk for anxiety, depression and PTSD which have physical symptoms.

Caring for Your Health While Grieving

Grief is a natural reaction to loss. But the physical ramifications can linger and seriously impact health over time if not managed well. Here are proactive ways to minimize the physical effects of bereavement:

  • Get screened for anxiety and depression – Treat any emerging mental health issues to prevent amplification of physical symptoms. Therapy and medication can help.
  • Improve sleep hygiene – Keeping a regular sleep routine, limiting naps, avoiding screens before bedtime and creating a restful sleep environment.
  • Eat a nourishing diet – Even when appetite decreases, try to maintain a diet high in whole foods, fruits and vegetables to supply needed nutrients and energy. Stay hydrated.
  • Reduce alcohol and caffeine – These stimulants can exacerbate anxiety, insomnia and stomach issues.
  • Engage in moderate exercise – Moving your body helps release feel-good endorphins and relieves built-up stress. Start slow.
  • Practice relaxation techniques – Meditation, deep breathing, massage and yoga calm the nervous system and help manage stress induced physical symptoms.
  • Stay socially connected – Loneliness takes a toll. Spending time with supportive loved ones provides a mood boost.

When to Seek Medical Care

Most physical symptoms that crop up during bereavement will resolve over time as you work through the stages of grief. However, consult a doctor if you experience:

  • Crushing chest pain, arrhythmias or difficulty breathing
  • Fainting spells or dizziness
  • Severe pain anywhere in the body
  • Persistent headaches, stomach issues or sleep disruption
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Dangerously weakened immune system
  • Thoughts of self-harm

Getting bloodwork, having any warning signs investigated and taking care of your emotional and physical health helps minimize the sickness caused by grief. With time and self-love, the body gradually returns to balance.

The Risks of Prolonged Grief

While grief naturally takes a toll on the body, most people start to adjust physically within a few months after a loss. However, with prolonged or complicated grief, the physical symptoms can linger and become concerning.

If deep bereavement persists beyond 6 months and continues severely impacting your health, it’s time to get additional support. The physical effects may include:

  • Constant exhaustion and difficulty functioning
  • Severe anxiety causing chest pain, nausea, dizziness
  • Dangerous weight fluctuations
  • Ongoing sleep disturbances and insomnia
  • Loss of energy and physical stamina
  • Compromised immune function
  • Development of chronic health conditions
  • Thoughts of self-harm

Getting grief counseling, treating co-occurring depression, engaging in self-care and utilizing coping strategies allows you to work through your loss without it endangering physical health long-term.

Remember Self-Compassion

Losing someone you deeply love will impact you physically and emotionally. Cut yourself some slack. Understand that feeling tired, weak or ill is part of the natural grieving process after the death of a loved one. With time, care and support, the intense physical effects will abate.

Be patient and nurturing with your body as you cope with loss. You are stronger than this grief, even during the hard moments where strength feels impossible to muster. Healing from bereavement requires space, love and time. You will feel physically renewed in due course.

Find Grief Support with Grief Works by Illume

Getting support when grieving is essential. It can be challenging, but you don’t have to worry!

The Grief Works app helps you overcome grief and connect with a community that cares for you. It also offers live monthly calls and the ability to chat with a therapist when needed.

Moreover, it has a built-in journal book for your daily diary and the Grief Works Curriculum to guide you in your healing journey.