Going through a bereavement can put your body through a lot, both emotionally and physically. Here are six ways you may be able to spot it
If you’ve ever experienced a loss, especially if it was a significant one, you may have been surprised by how grief affects your whole being. We know grief can be tough emotionally, but there is generally less awareness about how it can affect us physically.
As a nutritional therapist and wellbeing coach with personal experience of traumatic loss, I now also work as a holistic grief coach and certified grief educator, witnessing first-hand how grief affects us on a physical level. From a holistic viewpoint, I observe how our emotions are sometimes expressed through our bodies. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in grief and trauma. Here’s what it may look like.
The passing of a loved one can be very stressful, and the body may reflect this through the digestive system. For some, their digestive system might already be reactive to stress in ‘normal’ times. Grief is an extreme stressor, and if you are already sensitive to disturbances, these symptoms can become even more problematic. Digestive symptoms experienced during the grieving process may include nausea, constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, and acid reflux. These physical symptoms can feel overwhelming on top of the full-on emotional pain of loss. However, they’re usually transitory. If symptoms persist, please seek help from a professional.
After a loss, sleep may prove elusive. Not being able to sleep when you’re grieving can feel like torture. You can go to dark places when the rest of the world is asleep, not to mention getting unpleasant adrenaline rushes when you wake suddenly during the night.
Sleep is when the body repairs itself, and when we process what’s happened on an emotional level, but if we’re stuck in fight or flight mode after our loss, we may need to take measures to regulate our over-triggered nervous system. Supplements or herbs may help, as can breathing techniques. One of the simplest tips to try is to count slowly back from 100, repeating until you fall asleep. You could also try the 4–7–8 technique (breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and breathe out slowly through the mouth for eight). It is thought that the lengthening of the exhale helps to soothe an agitated nervous system, and that this simple action can halt the flood of stress hormones that can trigger an escalation of anxiety.
Experiencing loss, especially if it was in any way traumatic, can mean that the world now feels unsafe, leading to a state of anxiety. This may affect the body in several ways. There may be a feeling of being on ‘high alert’, and subsequently an inability to relax or sleep properly. Other symptoms of anxiety in grief might include a racing heart, a tight chest with shallow breathing, feeling shaky, lightheaded, or faint.
Brain fog or ‘grief brain’
Alongside fatigue, this is a very prevalent symptom among my clients. Grief can result in memory loss, confusion, not being able to pay attention, and brain fog – or ‘grief brain’. This has the potential to affect someone both physically and mentally, and can be quite frightening if you haven’t anticipated it playing such a major factor in the grieving process.
This type of brain fog is not only due to insomnia; both trauma and grief can interfere with our ability to think clearly. The body gets flooded with cortisol, which can lead to feelings of confusion, fogginess, and a lack of concentration. Author Megan Devine suggests that you imagine you have 100 units of brain power for each day. Then, imagine that around 99 of these units have now been taken up by grief, trauma, and sadness. It leaves just one unit for normal daily activities. A traumatised brain is on high alert, and works much harder than a non-traumatised brain to keep up with everyday situations – and that’s exhausting. ‘Grief brain’ usually begins to improve once the initial shock of the loss has passed.
Most of us are aware of how important it is to drink plenty of water, but this is especially true during grief, as it’s thought that you can become dehydrated from crying when the grief is especially intense. It’s possible, too, that the physiological effects of grief could result in dehydration. Extreme stress can cause dehydration, and dehydration can cause an excessive release of cortisol. It can potentially exacerbate brain fog, anxiety, and depression.
Under a microscope, tears of grief are shown to have a different chemical makeup than other kinds of tears. It’s thought that emotional tears contain stress hormones, which the body releases in the process of crying. While it’s important to drink enough water when grieving, it’s equally important to remember that tears are healing, and so should never be suppressed.
It’s quite usual with shock and trauma for there to be a loss of appetite, and consequently weight loss, which is sometimes quite rapid. This should start to balance out in a few weeks. However, it’s possible for an eating disorder to become re-triggered by grief.
Grief is a time when people feel they have no control over what’s happened to them, and although it’s a complex issue, control can play a part in some eating disorders. Grief therefore can unfortunately provide conditions for a worsening, or resurgence, of this. It goes without saying that you must consult your GP or an eating disorder specialist if you feel you need support.
Weight gain through comfort eating is also common, usually developing a few weeks or months after the loss. From a physiological perspective, an increase in cortisol caused by stress can contribute to cravings. Most weight issues experienced under these circumstances stem from the pain of grief, and may right themselves as you process your new situation.
How can we manage grief-related physical issues?
It’s vital to find ways to release our grief through talking, crying, exercise, walking, yoga, creativity, journaling, or getting out in nature. A good diet, with a focus on keeping blood sugar balanced, plus specific supplements for nervous system regulation, digestive function, and brain support, can also help.
We can’t do anything to change what has happened to us, but we can take measures to try to minimise some of the physical damage. There’s no getting around the fact that the physical symptoms of grief can be a lot to deal with on top of our emotional pain. But taking proactive steps to support our health can make life a little more bearable, helping to ease our path through grief.