Grief — over the loss of a loved one or a pet, for instance — can leave us feeling like an emotional wreck, and that’s perfectly normal. Grief can engulf us in sadness, loneliness, bewilderment, anger and so many more feelings.
To be sure, we know the emotional toll that grief can take, potentially resulting in depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. But what about the toll the grieving process can take on our health as a whole?
Physically, someone who’s grieving a loss can experience stress, panic attacks and fatigue, and all of those can lead to a weakened immune system and, therefore, compromise the person’s well-being, says Channing Marinari, who leads clinical outreach at Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches, a provider of addiction and mental health treatment.
Functional nutrition coach Amanda Malachesky adds insomnia and loss of appetite to the list of the physical symptoms of grief. Furthermore, she says, grief can cause worsen an existing health condition or even trigger a new one.
A study published in 2012 in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association demonstrates just one way that grief can affect our physical health. The study of 1,985 adults who survived heart attacks showed that after the death of a significant person, heart attack risks increased:
- 21 times more than normal within the first day after the death.
- Almost six times more than normal within the first week after the death.
The long-term risks were especially profound among grieving spouses, the study says.
The researchers reported that psychological stress prompted by extreme grief can lead to an elevated heart rate, higher blood pressure and blood clotting, all of which can contribute to a heart attack. In addition, the researchers noted, the early part of the grieving process can produce loss of sleep, loss of appetite and heightened cortisol levels, all of which also can put someone on the path toward a heart attack.
So, what can you do to protect your heart and the rest of your body during the grieving process?
Lyn Delmastro-Thomson, a certified BodyTalk healing practitioner, says one of the keys for someone who’s grieving is to feel and release emotions — this includes allowing yourself to cry — and to not let those emotions get bottled up.
“From my perspective, grief itself doesn’t harm our health. Grief is just an emotion, and no emotion is dangerous,” Delmastro-Thomson says. “Grief brings with it letting go and releasing, which is a key part of life. The challenging part of grief is when we suppress it, think we should do it the ‘right’ way or try to rush ourselves through it, then we are not allowing the emotion to move.”
She adds: “Suppressing grief is what makes it more dangerous to your health and well-being.”
The bottom line, Malachesky says, is to practice self-care.
“The ways to combat grief and maintain health all depend on whether you actively engage the loss, rather than letting it consume and control you,” says David Barbour, co-founder of wellness company Vivio Life Sciences.
Barbour and other experts suggest these components for the self-care regimen of a grieving person:
- Get plenty of rest. In general, an adult should sleep seven to nine hours a day.
- Eat meals on a regular schedule, and eat food that’s good for you. In other words, stay away from the potato chips and chocolate chip cookies (unless they’re super-healthy versions, of course).
- Exercise regularly, whether that’s walking, running, swimming, cycling or another heart-pumping activity you enjoy.
- Talk about your feelings with a friend, relative or loved one, or with a counselor or therapist.
- Connect to the lost person or pet you’re grieving by writing poems, penning letters or assembling a photo album.
- Follow daily hygiene practices, such as brushing your teeth and showering.
- Engage in a relaxing activity, such as a massage.
- Realize that grieving is a process that’s unique to each person, and the process takes time to work through.
“Grieving the loss of a loved one is never easy and can be a major emotional crisis,” Malachesky says. “Allow your body to grieve — without a timeline — and nourish yourself any way you are able.”