What are some physical symptoms of grief

The death of a loved one can be one of the most emotionally painful experiences in life.
By illume Editorial Team
Last updated: Jul 24, 2023
10 min read
Flowers with a sunset backdrop

While the emotional weight of grief is expected, many people are surprised by the physical symptoms that can accompany loss. Understanding the connection between grief and the body is an important part of the healing process. People who are grieving can rely on family members and social support to help with their healing, however knowing the symptoms of grief can help you to be more intune with your own body, emotions and journey. 

In this blog we will go through the physical effects of grief and share advice on how to cope with them. While grief is a natural process to go through after losing a loved one, it’s important to stay in touch with your own healing journey and have healthy coping strategies. 

Common Physical Symptoms of Grief

Grieving takes a toll both mentally and physically. Here are some of the most common physical symptoms of grief that people may experience:

  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Insomnia or other sleep disturbances
  • Appetite changes and weight fluctuations 
  • Digestive issues like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation
  • Muscle weakness or tension
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Chest pains or tightness
  • Shortness of breath and hyperventilation
  • Decreased immune system function
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate

These physical symptoms are the body’s natural response to the intense emotion and stress of bereavement. Over time, symptoms will diminish as the grieving process progresses. However, prolonged or severe physical effects may indicate complicated grief that requires additional support. This is where the lines between grief and depression can start to blur. 

How Grief Impacts the Body

The mind and body have a profound connection. The physical symptoms of grief occur for several key reasons:

Stress Hormones

The loss of a loved one triggers the body’s fight-or-flight stress response. An influx of hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine cause physical reactions like insomnia, headaches, and digestive issues. Long-term stress can weaken the immune system and raise blood pressure.

Lifestyle Disruption 

Grief can cause neglect of physical needs like nutrition, exercise, and sleep. Poor self-care habits lead to fatigue, appetite changes, and muscle weakness. Disrupted routines also heighten stress levels. 

Emotional Distress

Intense sorrow, anxiety, anger, and loneliness take a physical toll. Chest pains, shortness of breath, and muscle tension result from emotional overload. Prolonged activation of the nervous system strains the heart.

Health Conditions

Some research indicates that bereavement doubles the risk of heart attack in the first day after loss. Grief may also worsen existing conditions like heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. High levels of stress hormones likely contribute to these negative health impacts. If grief is not treated and you try to bury it, then the likelihood that you will experience symptoms of complicated grief will increase over time. 

When to Seek Help for Physical Symptoms

For most people, physical grief symptoms slowly improve over weeks and months. However brief professional support may be needed if you experience:

  • Prolonged lack of energy, headaches, chest pains, digestive issues
  • Severe weight loss or weight gain
  • Constant overwhelm, anxiety, inability to function
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or others
  • Post traumatic stress disorder

Consult a doctor if you have concerns about new or worsening health problems after a loss. Ongoing physical impacts could signify complicated grief and the need for therapy. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help – grief counseling combined with medical care can get you back on the path to healing.

Caring for the Body During Grief 

Attending to physical and emotional needs together is key to recovering from bereavement. Try these self-care strategies:

  • Get enough rest and sleep, even if you need naps or have insomnia. Lack of sleep compounds stress.
  • Maintain a healthy diet. Ask friends to bring food if cooking seems difficult. Avoid excessive caffeine, sugar, and alcohol. 
  • Stay hydrated and limit salty foods, which can raise blood pressure.
  • Talk to your doctor if you have ongoing headaches, chest pain, digestive issues, or other physical problems.
  • Be physically active when possible through walking, yoga, or other gentle exercise. This reduces cortisol.
  • Release muscle tension through massage, warm baths, relaxation techniques.
  • Treat yourself compassionately. Don’t suppress emotions or push yourself too hard.
  • Join a grief support group. Sharing experiences helps reduce isolation and stress.
  • Consider grief counseling or therapy for coping strategies, healing stuck points, and improving mental health.

Processing grief in healthy ways through self-care, support systems, and professional help when needed can ease the physical impacts of loss. Be patient with yourself – there is no perfect formula or timeline for healing. With time and care, the intense initial symptoms will subside. Cherishing your loved one’s memory with your mind and body can help guide you to a place of acceptance and peace.

Find Grief Support with Grief Works by Illume

Getting support when grieving is essential, but it can be challenging.

The Grief Works app offers 24/7 support in the palm of your hand. The 28-session therapeutic course will help you process your grief at your own pace, and you’ll gain access to 30+ interactive tools to manage your emotions when you need them.

Connect with a community that cares for you, attend live monthly group sessions with Julia herself and have the option to text-chat to a counselor when needed.

Reach out for support now to take the first step towards soothing your pain, building your strength and healing from grief.