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Grief & Your Health

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Oct 25, 2021

Grief & Your Health

Grief is one of those emotions we dread but have to face as it's a normal reaction to the loss of a loved one. Every living thing goes through a certain level of grief at some point in their life. However normal, when does healthy grieving become unhealthy? This article discusses everything about grief, as well as coping techniques.

What is Grief?

Grief is a state of deep, emotional suffering caused by bereavement. It is one of the most universal emotional reactions experienced by humans across cultures, time periods and social groups. The death of a loved one from illness or an accident undoubtedly precipitates grief in surviving family members and friends. Grievers often report feeling empty or lost for an extended period.

Whether you're grieving a death, a breakup or any devastating event that causes sorrow, experiencing grief is a difficult time, as well as the process of gradually coping with and accepting reality - even while experiencing sadness, anxiety and other painful feelings. The grieving process can create a wide array of emotional responses, as well as physical and mental symptoms. which range from mild to debilitating. These symptoms begin soon after someone dies and usually last about six months, but they may last longer for some people.

Most people adjust to grief over time... but if grief symptoms last longer than four months or so, depression may be at play. Sometimes, grief can also trigger mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects up to 50% of widows and widowers.

How Can Grief Affect Your Health?

A child's grief for his dead mother and the grief of a married man for his late spouse elicit similar symptoms: sleeplessness, loss of appetite and tearfulness. This is not surprising but a normal reaction to loss, as death or separation from those we love causes grief to arise in us. Grief is universal across cultures and time, but so are strategies to suppress it. We have evolved numerous methods to keep grief at bay as much as possible until the early stages of bereavement when our defenses become weakened by sadness and helplessness. Other physical symptoms of grief that a bereaved person may manifest include:

  • Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Insomnia, nightmares or sleeping too much
  • Feelings of sadness
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Digestive issues

Broken heart syndrome is commonly experienced by people during the grieving process. It is characterised by chest pain, shortness of breath and the feeling of having a heart attack. This condition is usually experienced during the first six months following the death of a loved one. 

It's important to remember that grief is not synonymous with depression. Unlike normal grief, depression is a mental illness that requires professional treatment. However, it's not uncommon for grief and depression to share similar symptoms. Grieving people are likely to experience emotional pain or symptoms of clinical depression, as well as some type of physical pain, when memories of the deceased person come flashing back. However, if the feelings of loss start to interfere with their everyday lives or make them incapable of performing their usual day-to-day tasks, a mental health professional can help. 

When Does the Grieving Process Become Unhealthy?

People go through their own grief cycles, which begin with feelings of deep sadness. It is a natural response to loss. If you suppress your feelings for the sake of those around you who are expressing difficult emotions and seem to need your support, you will only endanger your mental and physical health. 

If you don't allow yourself to go through the intense feelings of grief, you may end up getting stuck in the loop of this painful emotion. When left unchecked, it could take a toll on your emotional health and even lead to major depression.  

What are the Five Stages of Grief?

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross says there are five normal stages of grieving. These are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. 

Denial is the first stage of grief, when we avoid facing the reality of loss in order to cope with it. A part of you tries to absorb what just happened, while another part tries to avoid the overwhelming pain. 

Anger is an outlet for intense grief. You can express your emotions without appearing vulnerable to others. This can be especially useful for people who don't normally talk about their emotions.

Bargaining stems from your desperation to remove the pain that has seemingly taken over your entire being. Often, it's directed to a higher entity, such as God, and wishing for their approval.

In the depression stage, you begin to accept that no amount of bargaining can bring the deceased person back. So, you withdraw from others and wallow in your sadness knowing that nothing in this lifetime can change the fact that they are gone.

As the final stage of grief, acceptance is not pain-free, but you are no longer trying to change the situation. You will still feel tears well up in your eyes from time to time, but you won't be bargaining or bursting out in anger. This stage leads to complete healing. 

Tips for Coping With Grief and Loss

Grieving doesn't mean you are helpless or ill. Acknowledge how you feel, and if it becomes overwhelming, talk about your feelings with family and friends. Let them know the best times to call or visit. Below are other ways to work your way through the intense emotion called grief:

  • Be patient with yourself if symptoms change or new symptoms arrive. There are no fixed rules about how grief should be expressed.
  • Establish daily routines that provide structure and stability.
  • Find a grief support group either online or offline
  • Talk to others who have lost someone; their stories will help you cope
  • Get grief counselling from a grief counsellor
  • Let grief take its natural course. You don't have to cheer up to make their grief disappear.
  • You can also try Gestalt therapy.

There is no secret formula when it comes to grief. Just be patient with yourself and know that everything will get better. You may not see how now but it will soon pass. Be sure to talk about your feelings (however hard they are), or write them down if you can.

FAQs About Grief

What organs does grief affect?

Grief affects the lungs, according to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). That means sadness and other intense emotions experienced during your grieving process may affect the health of your lungs.

What does grief do to the body?

Unresolved grief can lead to inflammation and worsen existing health issues. It weakens the immune system, which makes you more prone to infection. A person experiencing extreme grief is at a greater risk of blood clots and high blood pressure as well.

Where do you carry grief in your body?

The cardiovascular system of the body bears the weight of grief. Extreme sadness increases blood pressure, causes a rapid heartbeat, and symptoms of a heart attack may occur. That means when someone says their heart is aching for their lost love, they could mean it literally.

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