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How Does Grief Affect Physical Health - Phaneuf

How does grief affect physical health

When people say, “This grief is killing me,” there’s some truth there. The question of how grief affects physical health has several answers – including literal heartbreak.

An American Heart Association study of about 2,000 adults revealed 270 people experienced a heart attack within six months of a loved one’s death. Nineteen people lost someone the day before having a heart attack. The increase in heart attack risk falls from a 21-fold increase to a 6-fold risk following the first week of grieving continues a steady decline over the next month.

“Caretakers, healthcare providers, and the bereaved themselves need to recognize they are in a period of heightened risk in the days and weeks after hearing of someone close dying,” Dr. Murray Mittleman, a preventive cardiologist at Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said.

How can grief affect your physical health

Grieving manifests itself in serious physical ways within our bodies. Studies show grieving spouses having a higher long-term risk of dying; heart attacks and strokes account for more than half of those deaths.

Stress-induced cardiomyopathy, or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is literally broken heart syndrome and affects healthy people during the grieving process. It’s sometimes misdiagnosed as a heart attack because the symptoms – such as chest pain – are similar.

When it occurs, a portion of the heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump blood as well, while the rest of the heart functions normally or with more forceful contractions. Because it looks and feels much like a heart attack, it’s often treated as such, though recovery generally happens a lot faster.

Grieving also affects brain function. When someone grieves, the brain floods with chemicals and hormones, which may impact memory, learning and multitasking.

“There can be a disruption in hormones that results in specific symptoms, such as disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, fatigue and anxiety,” said Jannel Phillips, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Henry Ford Health System.

Other physical effects of grieving

Grief raises the risks of nausea, stomach cramping, constipation, diarrhea and other digestive problems.

Fatigue or achiness in muscles occurs during grieving, often because people are not sleeping well or are out of their regular sleeping pattern.

Grieving sometimes suppresses the immune system, opening someone to the flu, a cold or other viruses.

Coping with the physical effects of grief

The saying time heals all wounds is not something a grieving person wants to hear right after a loved one dies. Many of us experience short-term grief of less than a year, and most of those physical symptoms ease with the lessening of grief.

Others have long-term grief of more than a year – and a year is a long time to suffer the physical ailments that come with ongoing grieving. Therapies specific to long-term grief are available.

The American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine published an eight-week program to aid the physical and mental effects of grieving a loved one. Stress Management and Resiliency Training (SMART): A Relaxation Response Resiliency Program is offered by The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Boston, MA.

The pieces of the program include:

  • Yoga, tai chi or qigong
  • Maintain a healthy diet
  • Follow a good sleep hygiene
  • Walk or exercise
  • Don’t ignore your health
  • Take on new responsibilities
  • Reach out to friends

Reaching out to a friend after the death of their loved one is a helpful step for someone beginning their grief. They may be reticent to bring up the physical symptoms of grief. Talking about it, understanding it and sharing some of the tactics above may help those physical ailments melt away faster. 

This post answers the questions:

How does grief affect physical health?

How can grief affect your physical health?

How does grief affect physical health?

The question, how does grief affect physical health, has several answers – including literal heartbreak. Stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy is literally broken heart syndrome, which affects healthy people during the grieving process.

How can grief affect your physical health?

Grief raises the risks of nausea, stomach cramping, constipation, diarrhea and other digestive problems.
Fatigue or achiness in muscles occurs during grieving, often because people are not sleeping well or are out of their regular sleeping pattern.
Grieving sometimes suppresses the immune system, opening someone to the flu, a cold or other viruses.

Preplanning your final arrangements ensures that your family understands your final wishes and alleviates a great deal of stress.

How Does Grief Affect Physical Health - Phaneuf
  • Megan Zopf Reply September 30, 2021 at 1:34 pm

    I haven’t had a heart attack or stroke yet, but I’ve suffered many ailments and still do to a certain degree. I lost my youngest brother to suicide back in 1981. It was too hard to cope with so I put it away in my brain and went about life the best I could. I was raising three small kids at that time. I suffered from depression for years.
    Then in 2013, my oldest brother died from an overdose. Luckily I contacted Phaneuf to handle all his funeral arrangements and that spared me the responsibility of handling all the funeral stuff like I did the first time.
    Last January 2020, my youngest son died from Fentanyl and some other horse tranquilizer. After Sean’s death, I started experiencing a lot of GI issues. A month after he died, Covid started and I couldn’t find a therapist willing to see me in person. I did manage to attend one meeting with Compassionate Friends. I could see how that could be helpful but no more meetings in person because of Covid. They did manage to do Zoom meetings but I didn’t have and still don’t have the internet available to join that.
    Then a few months later, on October 1st, my only living sibling overdosed on Fentanyl. That just about destroyed any will I had left to want to go on in life. The only thing that saved me was my art. I painted several paintings and although it was a fairly new skill, I had a lot of support from like minded people and took quite a few classes to help develop better skills. Support is essential otherwise the body will shut down,

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