How Does Grief Affect Physical Health | How Can Grief Affect Your Physical Health | Phaneuf
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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.

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