Physical Reactions to Grief


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When the stress of an emotional injury is felt, there will be warning signs in the body. Expressing emotional pain indirectly through physical symptoms may be more acceptable in some families, and more worthy of attention. But it is very hard on the body and it can be dangerous. When you don’t express your emotional pain directly, your body may do it for you.

Grief can cause any of these physical symptoms:

  • Low energy: needing more rest; tiring more quickly; feeling generally fatigued.
  • Hyperactivity: an intense state of arousal or panicky feeling; bursts of physical energy; difficulty sitting still; needing to move around.
  • Crisis response: elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, muscle tension, dizziness, weakness, headaches, not feeling well, tightness in the throat and chest, shortness of breath, dry mouth, feeling overwhelmed.
  • Susceptibility to illness: suppression of the body’s immune system.
  • Aggravation of pre-existing chronic medical conditions or precipitation of new ones: ulcers, colitis, hiatal hernia, arthritis, asthma, migraines, back pain.
  • Sighing or yawning: shallow breathing; inhaling frequently; trying to catch your breath.
  • Feeling off balance, uncoordinated.
  • Nausea.
  • Temporary hair loss.
  • Internalizing, or taking on symptoms of the illness your loved one had.
  • Erratic eating and sleeping patterns: insomnia, weight loss or gain.
  • Susceptibility to the abuse of drugs, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and food.
  • Heaviness; feeling as if you’re made of lead.
  • Feeling “out of sync” with your body.
  • Distorted perception of time and distance.

Caring for yourself won’t erase your grief, but it will offer a welcome respite from it. Pampering yourself with “food for the soul” (such as a massage, manicure, pedicure, facial or bath) releases body tension and makes you feel nurtured. Even though your energy is low and you don’t feel like establishing a healthy routine, force yourself to do it anyway. Pay careful attention to your need for nutrition, rest and relaxation, exercise and human contact.

Nutrition can suffer because appetites often shift after loss. In an effort to comfort and nurture yourself, you may eat more than usual, or you may have trouble eating anything at all. Stress can interfere with the absorption of important nutrients, while fats and sugars deplete energy.

Rest and relaxation are essential. Because rest relieves, restores and refreshes you, it is important that you make time in your day for “mindless” activity, or get away for a relaxing weekend. Your usual sleep pattern may be disrupted in the first few weeks of grief. You may not sleep well at all, or you may sleep more than usual as a way to avoid or shut out the pain.

Exercise is good for you, since regular physical activity stimulates the release of biochemicals in your body that relieve pain, alleviate stress and enhance your sense of well being. Exercise increases your circulation, stimulates your heart, cleanses your body, discharges negative energy, and gets you out and about.

Human contact is a basic human need. Touching, hugging, holding, and having contact with another is comforting and healing.

Suggestions for Coping with Physical Symptoms

  • Ask someone to stay with you to help you focus and prioritize what needs to get done.
  • Inform your physician what’s happening in your life, so your blood pressure, weight changes and other health indicators can be monitored.
  • Know you will make it through these episodes even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.
  • Recognize that your thinking processes, coordination and reaction time aren’t up to par right now.
  • Breathe. Frequently throughout the day, stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath, hold it, then exhale very slowly.
  • If your diet is not well balanced, try supplementing it with vitamins and minerals. Add fruits, vegetables and grains. Eat smaller, more frequent meals rather than three big ones. Eat foods you like that are easy to fix and digest, and include a special treat now and then.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Find an exercise you can do (stretching, walking, swimming, dancing, swinging or swaying to music) and set aside time to do it regularly.
  • Reach out and touch someone. Cuddle children and pets; hold hands with your friends; get a massage.
  • Attend to personal grooming (hair, skin, nails, wardrobe) that will enhance your body image. There is truth in the saying that when you look good, you feel good too.

If you’re having trouble sleeping, try using the methods recommended by accredited sleep centers:

  • Cut back on your caffeine and nicotine intake several hours before going to sleep.
  • Exercise regularly (for 20 minutes at least, three times a week).
  • Avoid self medicating with drugs or alcohol which can offer only temporary escape; have serious side effects; affect motor coordination and mental acuity; lead to dependency; magnify feelings of depression; and disrupt patterns of sleep.
  • Use sleeping aids only as prescribed by your doctor, and only as a temporary way to break the cycle of sleeplessness.
  • Condition yourself to fall asleep to guided imagery, using pre-recorded audio programs with soothing music and voice tones.
  • Avoid going to bed hungry, or after a heavy meal late in the evening.
  • Drink a cup of warm milk or water at bedtime (plain milk is a natural sedative).
  • Separate yourself from the stresses, worries and distractions of the day (yesterday, today or tomorrow). Wind down by reading, or taking a relaxing bath or warm shower before bed.
  • If your spouse is the one who died, sleep on your spouse’s side of the bed; it’s easier if your own side is empty.
  • Put on a night light, but keep your bedroom as cool, quiet, and as dark as possible.
  • Maintain a consistent sleep-wake cycle. Stick to a regular routine; retire and get up at the same time each day, even on weekends.
  • Avoid naps lasting longer than 30 minutes, especially after 3 p.m.
  • Establish a bedtime ritual. Cue your body to slow down and relax by preparing for bed the same way each night, and go to bed when you are sleepy.
  • Follow a deep relaxation routine; perform deep breathing exercises in bed.
  • Listen to music that soothes your soul and decreases tension.
  • Visualize being in your most favorite and pleasant place.
  • Associate your bed only with relaxing, sleeping and sexual pleasure – don’t use it for other activities that can initiate or stimulate worries and concerns.

Copyright © 1999-2012 by Martha M. Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC    All rights reserved


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