The emotional toll grief takes is obvious. Often after losing someone close to us or facing another heartbreaking trial, we experience a multitude of emotions that can range from deep sadness to anger and resentment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Grief can also have physical effects—so much so that it can even cause a form of heart disease bearing the same symptoms as a heart attack.
While it’s normal to feel like you have little control over how the effects of grief manifest mentally and physically, knowing what to watch for is the first step of caring for yourself during this difficult time.
How Grief Affects You Physically
One of grief’s most notorious effects is its ability to suppress the immune system. One study found that people who had recently experienced loss had reduced function of their neutrophils — white blood cells known for fighting off infections.
Researchers suspect this is because the stress hormone cortisol is amplified during times of grief, weakening the immune system. Typically, a hormone called DHEA helps to offset this effect by bolstering neutrophils for those under 30. After that age, however, DHEA levels can drop, meaning mature adults are more susceptible to illness caused by grief.
Aside from immune system issues, grief has been found to affect nearly every system in the body, including the nervous, digestive, and cardiovascular systems. As these systems all work together, they’re also all vulnerable to the damage stress can cause. For instance, grieving individuals are often in poorer overall health, have aggravated physical pain, and experience higher blood pressure.
The heart is among the organs most heavily affected: the risk of heart attack is 21 times higher immediately after the death of a loved one, and six times higher in the week afterwards.
Staying Healthy While Grieving
Taking care of yourself may be the last thing on your mind during the early stages of grief. It’s common to feel as if you’re simply in survival mode. If you’re experiencing immense or prolonged grief, however, therapy or support groups may help you work through the emotions you’re experiencing.
If you’re able to, reclaiming your health could help you feel better both physically and emotionally. According to Harvard Medical School, a multi-faceted program that encompasses the following practices may be most effective:
- A diet rich in vegetables, fruit, and lean protein, and limited in heavily processed foods
- Routine bedtimes and avoidance of caffeine in the afternoon and evening
- Physical movement, such as a simple walk
- Mind-body activities such as yoga or tai chi, which can help reduce inflammation and ease the effects of stress at a molecular level
- Socialization, including gatherings with family and friends
For persistent grief, which lasts longer than 12 months after losing a loved one, a therapist or counselor can recommend coping strategies beyond these for you.
At LifeBrite Early, our caring team of practitioners is here to help you through the physical changes that come with the ups and downs of life. To schedule an appointment with our family medical practice, call (229) 723-4313.
Learn More About LifeBrite
Atlanta-based LifeBrite, led by CEO Christian Fletcher, operates LifeBrite Community Hospital of Early, LifeBrite Community Hospital of Stokes, and Lifebrite Laboratories. For more about our specific services and facilities, visit our website.