The Physical Effects of Grief

For many, the winter season can be difficult if you live in a section of the country that is cold and blustery. Icy, snowy, or rainy conditions and colder temperatures may keep you from going outdoors. Many people have a tendency to hibernate, lessening their physical and social activity. Because you are coping with the loss of a loved one, you may be feeling the impact of the added physical, mental, social, and emotional aspects of grief. It can pile up like inches of snow and rain and be difficult to move through. What impacts you emotionally also affects you physically. Many experience an ache in the pit of the stomach, heaviness in the chest, dizziness, shortness of breath, a feeling of exhaustion, or the inability to sleep. You may be more vulnerable to colds and infections, or feel weaker or worn out. These are reminders that your mind and your body are connected. They are common experiences during grief.

Even if you haven’t been physically active, you are using a lot of energy just to cope and get through one moment to the next, especially in the early weeks after a significant loss. Grief is a very natural process and it is important to trust this process and “go with the flow.” This is similar to when you have a physical illness or injury where you tend to slow down and pamper yourself to allow time to heal. There are times after a physical wound where the scab comes off and it bleeds again. When this happens you gently bandage the wound, knowing it will take a bit longer to heal. This occurs along your grief journey as well, when something or someone reminds you of all you have lost. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself as you heal.

If you are feeling anxious or tense, remember that mind-body connection. Take an inventory of how well you are taking care of your physical body. Are you eating healthy meals regularly? How are you sleeping? Exercising three to five times a week will have a positive effect on your sleep as well as your level of anxiety. Stress reduction techniques can also help. Meditation, yoga, self-expression through art or writing, breathing exercises, prayer, and listening to or playing music are but a few of the ways you can tend to your physical self.

When you are deeply grieving, it is an intense, lengthy, and stressful process. Just as one must take breaks from physical exertion, it is important for you to find ways to take a break from your grief. Doing so doesn’t mean you love that person any less and, most likely, if they were here to tell you, they would want you to do so. Although you cannot influence or change what has happened to you, there is much you can do to affect how you cope with your loss. By making the effort to follow through on some of these suggestions, you will continue to make progress on your grief journey. As you intentionally practice good self-care, you will, in time, discover new ways to embrace life.

by Patti Anewalt, PhD, LPC, FT, Director of the Pathways Center for Grief & Loss with Hospice & Community Care
Journeys with Grief: A Newsletter to Help in Bereavement, copyright Hospice Foundation of America, 2018.