Is Grief Affecting Your Health?
The short answer is, “Yes.”
Grief is a stress reaction and, if you are grieving, you know that it takes a lot out of you, physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
Emotions are drivers of stress. Lower energy emotions like anxiety, anger, frustration, sadness, or hopelessness provide the fuel for ongoing stress. We feel emotions in our bodies. Your eyes well up with tears when you are sad. You feel anxiety in your chest or the pit of your stomach. An intense emotional feeling of anxiety or fear can provoke a panic attack, which you also feel in your body. Panic attacks mimic the symptoms of a heart attack, which often prompts people to go to the hospital Emergency Room for help.
The Hormones of Stress
Biochemically, stress has the effect of elevating your cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones. In the short term, these hormones provide a burst of energy to help you run, hide, or fight your way out of a stressful situation. However, when you are grieving, your stress can become more long-term, which can lead to illness.
High cortisol levels over long periods of time can affect your health by suppressing your immune system. This also contributes to depression, poor appetite, and insomnia. Other common health complaints I have heard from my clients are ulcers, colitis, autoimmune disorders, rashes, weakness, back pain, weight gain or loss, headaches, shortness of breath, exhaustion, and heart palpitations.
Chronic stress causes DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) to decrease, while cortisol remains high. When the Cortisol/DHEA balance is out of whack, it contributes to accelerated aging, impaired memory, decrease in bone density and muscle mass, impaired immune function, increased blood sugar, and increased fat accumulation around the belly and hips. All these changes to the body have a detrimental effect on your health in the long term.
Can You Really Die of a Broken Heart?
There is research that bereaved spouses have a 66% chance of dying in the three-month period after their partner\’s death, according to Harvard researchers. According to the Heart Foundation, intense emotion and stress have been clearly linked with heart attack risk and a condition known as stress cardiomyopathy. There is even a clinical term for a condition often referred to as “broken heart syndrome,” takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or stress-induced cardiomyopathy.
You can find information about the physical aspects of this syndrome in medical publications. The symptoms are chest pain and elevated bio-indicators that mimic a heart attack. What happens is that the amount of stress you experience after losing a loved one can cause the left ventricle of the heart to weaken, thus slowing the main pumping mechanism required for healthy heart function. And while it is common to recover within a month from “broken heart syndrome,” sometimes a broken heart can do you in.
Another interesting fact about takotsubo cardiomyopathy is that there is no clear physical treatment a doctor can recommend in order to heal from heartbreak. This makes this situation a perfect opportunity to explore what’s underneath the cause of the physical symptoms. When picturing what’s actually occurring in the heart, the left ventricle straining itself from the stress of loss and then weakening, metaphorically speaking, the heart is closing down on itself.
How to Heal Your Broken Heart
The quality of your attitude towards yourself plays a key role. Practicing patience, loving-kindness, and generosity of spirit towards yourself and others is what creates a healing environment necessary for healing your heart at the metaphorical level.
Realize that everyone grieves in their own way. Just because your way of grieving seems different from others, it does not mean that you are doing it wrong or that your feelings aren’t valid. Be patient and gentle with yourself, don’t expect too much of yourself when you are healing. Accept yourself whole-heartedly, no matter what the path to healing is.
I encourage you to reach out for support. Find people to talk to about your feelings who will listen compassionately without needing to give you advice or fix you. Isolation can lead to loneliness and prolonged suffering. You don’t have to go through this alone.
If you are concerned about any of the physical symptoms you are experiencing, it’s important to see your doctor. After a thorough check-up, your doctor may want to monitor your health closely, your blood pressure, changes in weight, or other indications of physical illness.
You probably have heard about the steps you can take to support your body when you are grieving. Paying attention to your nutrition, exercise, sleep, and making sure your self-care is rock solid is the first priority.
The critical factor, emotionally or mentally, is your ability to be resilient and to bounce back from this terrible blow.
These practices boost resilience and help you get through the worst of times:
- Tell yourself that you will get through this: Remind yourself that you are stronger and more resilient than you think
- Create opportunities for small successes: taking positive action, even if they are just baby steps, will elevate your self-esteem and your motivation to keep going
- Celebrate every victory (even the small ones): recognize how far you’ve come, and celebrate your progress
- Start and end each day with gratitude: review each day for the good things that happened and the blessings in your life
There are other factors to consider that may complicate your recovery process. Here is some more information about complicated grief.
Above all, be kind to your sweet self. Open your heart to yourself again. Give your heart time to rest and heal while you breathe into each new day and into your new life.
I invite you to check out more information about my program, Rebuilding Your Life After Loss.
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The Wellness Universe Self-Care Author of the Day! Chapter 16 – Choosing Resilience: Using Your Biology to Shift from Distress to Well-Being, Jennifer Whitacre, MA, Empowerment Strategist, and Trauma Specialist. 10 days left until you can pick up your copy of The Wellness Universe “Guide to Complete Self-Care, 25 Tools for Stress Relief!” Join our book club to get the announcement, special events, and to connect with all the authors!
Carrie Doubts is a Transformational Coach specializing in supporting people through life transitions. Her 9-step Program, Rebuilding Your Life After Loss, helps people to reconnect with their heart, reclaim their power, and re-align with their purpose to create their life’s next chapter.