After losing a loved one, most people experience intense emotions and severe stress. For some people, physical symptoms of grief — like headaches — can make things even harder. If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, you may also experience digestive problems, insomnia, fatigue, and muscle pain.
The mental and physical symptoms of grief usually improve with time. But some people experience a prolonged grief disorder that happens when intense symptoms continue for more than a year.
Keep reading to learn more about the physical symptoms of grief, what causes them, and how you can help prevent them.
The loss of a close loved one is undoubtedly one of the most painful experiences you’ll have in your lifetime. Many people experience a range of physical and psychological symptoms after a loss. You may experience symptoms like:
- chest pain
- muscle pain
- joint pain
- heaviness in the limbs
- weight changes
While you’re grieving, in addition to the emotional turmoil of bereavement, you may also experience symptoms that are more often associated with mental health conditions or cognitive decline. These can include:
- depressive symptoms
- difficulty with decision making
- memory problems
These symptoms should start to improve as the months go by.
If the physical and psychological symptoms of grief continue to interfere with your daily life and responsibilities for more than 1 year, a doctor might diagnose you with a condition called prolonged grief disorder or complicated grief.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, 7% to 10% of bereaved adults may experience prolonged grief. But the percentage of people experiencing complicated grief significantly increases after unnatural or traumatic deaths.
According to research, complicated grief has been associated with several chronic health conditions, including:
Several different factors can lead to physical symptoms from grief. Some of the more common origins of grief-related ailments include:
In addition to emotionally coping with the loss of a loved one, you may also be the one to arrange for funeral services. You may need to make decisions about the person’s property, deal with other grieving family members, and take on other unforeseen responsibilities — all of which can dramatically increase your stress levels.
Grief increases the release of stress hormones, especially cortisol. High cortisol levels are associated with many symptoms, including headaches, shortness of breath, and stomach upset. Stress can also trigger migraine episodes in people with migraine.
Shock and stress around the death of a loved one can also lead to the condition commonly known as broken heart syndrome. Broken heart syndrome, or stress-induced cardiomyopathy, can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations. This phenomenon can happen to anyone, even when they have no history of heart disease.
Stress also causes people to tense their muscles as part of the “fight or flight” response of the autonomic nervous system. Prolonged muscle tension can result in , muscle aches, and joint pain.
Insomnia is a common symptom of grief, especially for people who lose a partner. Just seeing an empty bed can trigger an intense emotional response, which can make it difficult to fall asleep. Chronic stress can also interfere with sleep, while poor sleep quality can contribute to chronic stress. Because of this, people can end up trapped in a vicious cycle.
Alcohol and drug use
The way people cope with grief can have a significant impact on their health. Abusing alcohol or drugs can cause a myriad of physical symptoms, including headaches, digestive issues, and fatigue.
Research has shown that increased alcohol consumption is a common coping tool.
Changing eating patterns
It’s not uncommon for people who are grieving to forget to eat, overeat, or develop abnormal eating patterns. If you’ve lost a partner, that can significantly impact your mealtime routine. You might not be used to cooking or grocery shopping for yourself. This can leave people eating junk food and frozen dinners.
These changes can cause digestive problems like constipation and diarrhea. Over time, it can lead to weight gain, weight loss, or even malnutrition.
When people forget to eat and don’t get the calories they need, it can cause headaches, dizziness, and severe fatigue.
Bereavement can increase the levels of inflammation in your body, which in turn can weaken the immune system. Grief can also directly affect the ability of antibodies to respond to infection. With a weaker immune system, you’re at a higher risk of infection. This can lead to colds, cases of flu, and other respiratory infections.
Inflammation may be one of the other factors. Inflammation plays a role in heart disease and heart attacks, a common cause of death among bereaved partners.
You may want to try treating your symptoms from grief the same way you would treat them if they were caused by something else. Initial treatments may include over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, like ibuprofen (Advil), stomach soothers, like simethicone (GasX), or laxatives like senna (Ex-Lax).
For symptoms that aren’t eased by OTC medications, you may want to talk with a doctor.
Nontraditional remedies, such as acupuncture or meditation, may also be helpful.
Everyone grieves differently, so what worked for someone else might not work for you. Research suggests, however, that addressing your emotional health as early as possible can prevent further psychological complications, as well as the physical health problems that can emerge while you’re grieving.
The study also notes that pets may actually be one of the most effective sources of emotional support for people who have experienced a loss.
Seeing a mental health professional soon after experiencing a loss can also help prevent long-term physical and emotional challenges. You may find that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is useful.
What is CBT?
Cognitive behavioral therapy is designed to help you reframe your thinking about yourself and your circumstances. It helps by encouraging you to adopt healthier behaviors and make positive changes in your life.
You may also benefit from medically assisted grief therapy. This involves the temporary use of medications to help you sleep or cope with anxiety or depression. The decision to rely on medications, however, should be done under the strict supervision of a doctor with a full understanding of the risks and benefits of this approach.
Group therapy can also be helpful, as it allows you to share your feelings with others going through a similar experience.
To help get through the grieving process and minimize the physical health problems that can arise, consider these healthy behaviors:
- Adopt a sleep routine: Try to adhere to a regular sleep routine — going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time every day.
- Exercise: Even if it’s just taking a walk every day. Physical activity promotes the release of “feel good” chemicals in the body and helps improve circulation, respiratory health, and sleep.
- Eat a balanced diet: Keep the consumption of junk food and alcohol to a minimum. A diet rich in vegetables, fruit, lean proteins, and whole grains will support your physical health and give you the energy and nutrients you need to think clearly and stay active.
- Volunteer: Find ways to help others. Few behaviors can help you get out of your own head and shift your focus more than assisting other people in need. Supporting other grieving individuals may be challenging, but you may be just the right person to help someone get through their difficult time.
Headaches, stomachaches, and muscle pain are among the many physical symptoms that can develop as you process the death of a loved one. Physical symptoms of grief can stem from higher inflammation and stress levels in the body, as well as poor sleep or a reliance on alcohol to ease the pain.
If your symptoms aren’t improving over time, you should talk with a doctor or mental health professional.