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Grief Can Make You Prone to Physical Pain and Sickness. Here’s How to Cope

If you suffer a loss or are dealing with the death of a loved one and you’re grieving, you’re probably not surprised that you feel emotional pain. You may be sad, lonely or angry. You may cry easily and withdraw from others. You may find it difficult simply to get through your day.

You might not think that your grief could cause physical problems, too. But Mairead McConnell, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Banner Health in Tucson, AZ, said that it is common to have physical problems when you’re grieving. Here’s what she told us about what you might experience and how you can cope.

You could notice these physical effects if you are experiencing grief

There are several different ways grief can cause health problems. And just because grief is triggering your symptoms doesn’t mean they are “all in your head.” Dr. McConnell said, “This pain is real. The pain of grief is more than just cognitive and emotional. It is physical, too.”

Common physical symptoms:

  • Pain in your chest or other parts of your body.
  • Sleep problems or insomnia—you may sleep too much or struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep.
  • Digestive issues. When you’re grieving, you might not feel like eating, and you might not follow your everyday routines. You could notice constipation, diarrhea, nausea or stomach pain.
  • Illness. Grief can impact your immune system and make you more susceptible to diseases.
  • Heart symptoms. You are more likely to have a heart attack or cardiac event in the six weeks following a loss.

You may notice some or all of these problems, and you could experience them at different times as you’re going through the grieving process.

How you can tell if it’s grief that’s causing these physical effects

If your symptoms began right before or shortly after your loss, grief is likely a factor. “That doesn’t mean they should be taken any less seriously. These symptoms still need tending to,”Dr.McConnell said.

And remember, it could also be something else causing your symptoms. Seek care right away for any worrisome concerns such as chest pain or heart symptoms.

Here’s what you can do to manage the physical symptoms of grief

Taking care of your emotional health can help reduce the physical problems that crop up when you’re grieving. Acknowledge your feelings. “Grief can be accompanied by multiple emotions:sadness, anger, relief, regret and more. It may feel messy and confusing—that’s okay. Let yourself feel what you’re feeling, without avoiding or judging it,” Dr. McConnell said.

You need to take care of your body, too. There are a few steps you can take to alleviate physical problems caused by grief:

  • Stay hydrated. Good hydration can help keep your body healthy, and it’s easy to forget to drink water when you’re consumed by grief.
  • Eat simple, nutritious foods several times a day. You may find you don’t have an appetite, or you don’t feel like cooking. Foods like fruit, nuts and whole-grain cereals are easy to prepare and give your body nutrients it needs. “Continuing to nourish yourself is key to healing,” Dr. McConnell said.
  • Rest. “Even if you are struggling to sleep, remember that your mind and body both need rest,” she said.
  • Move your body. You don’t need to exercise strenuously, especially if that wasn’t part of your routine before your loss. But try to get out for a walk, hike or bike ride. “Movement is necessary for health and healing and also benefits you emotionally,” Dr. McConnell said.
  • Accept support. People will usually offer help when you’re grieving. You may not feel up to it but see if you can say “yes” to that meal, visit or reason to leave the house. Social support and making plans can be a welcome distraction.

Here’s when to seek professional help for your grief

It’s normal for people who are grieving to have doubts about how they will survive a significant loss, and it’s never too early or too late to reach out for help. “Loss of a loved one is one of life’s most painful experiences,” Dr. McConnell said. “If you’ve suffered a loss, it can be helpful to see a professional therapist or counselor.” But not everyone who is grieving chooses therapy—you may prefer to process your grief in other ways.

However, you should contact a mental health professional if you:

  • Are thinking of harming yourself or making plans to end your life
  • Continue to experience physical symptoms for more than a year after your loss

And remember, there is no timeline for grief. “We don’t ‘get over’ or ‘move on from a major loss,” Dr. McConnell said. “Healing is learning to walk through life carrying both your love and your grief with you.”

The bottom line

When you’re grieving a loss, you probably expect to notice emotional symptoms like sadness, loneliness or anger. But grief can trigger physical problems, too. Taking care of your body when you’re grieving is key to helping you recover both physically and emotionally. If you would like to talk to a behavioral health professional to learn more about coping with grief, connect with Banner Health.

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