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When Grief Gets Physical: dealing with physical grief symptoms

There is simply no way to anticipate what grief feels like. It is one of those experiences that you can describe to someone, but it is impossible to really understand it until you are forced to live with it. Of all the unimaginable aspects of grief, there is one thing we hear people say time and again that they really didn’t expect: physical grief symptoms.

They might not have been fully able to appreciate the emotional rollercoaster of grief until they were on it, but they at least had a sense it was part of the process. The physical stuff is something many people tell us they simply didn’t know to expect until it hit them like a ton of bricks.

When this happens, it can be distressing. Anytime we have new, uncomfortable physical issues it is distressing. But in grief that can sometimes be coupled with a new level of anxiety. In the past, a headache was a headache. After the devastating loss of a loved one, you are all-to-familiar with the reality that life can turn on a dime. Suddenly that headache is clearly a sign of something terrible. This distress around physical grief symptoms often emerges with thoughts like:

So today’s post is going to get straight to the point. If you take nothing else, just remember: grief doesn’t just manifest as emotional symptoms, it also involves physical symptoms. Don’t panic, they’re normal. Horrible and frustrating and sometimes scary, but normal. You can’t magically cure them, but you can do things to manage them. And of course, if they are impacting your day to day functioning or not getting more manageable over time, see your doctor!

Here is a quick run-down of some common physical grief symptoms (illustrated by bitmoji) and some tips and resources:

Fatigue

You feel exhausted all the time. You feel run down. You are always ready for a nap. Ironically, when you try to sleep you may not be able to, only making your fatigue worse. Or maybe you’re getting plenty of sleep and still feeling fatigued, due to the constant emotional strain of grief.

Tips: when you’re struggling with fatigue, sleep is a good place to start but it isn’t the only factor. If you haven’t already, check out some of our tips for grief and getting a good night’s sleep. Some of the other items on this list can also help with combating fatigue.

Aches and pains

Yes, for real, you’re body can start to hurt. You are experiencing the weight of a constant stress, you are fatigued, you may not be sleeping, you’re body is tense. It is not uncommon for people to describe generalized muscle aches in grief, sometimes so severe it feels like the flu! Research has even found that grief “aggravates” symptoms of physical pain in older adults.

Tips: try to work on body relaxation. Things like meditation, getting a massage, and stretching can sometimes be helpful. And who doesn’t need an excuse for a massage! If you can’t afford a massage, check to see if there is a local massage school in your area – they often need practice clients so you can get a massage for a deep discount or free. If you are struggling with chronic pain that you feel may be exacerbated by your loss, talk to a pain management specialist. Be aware of the risks of “self-medicating” with drugs and alcohol when physical pain is increased, and consider looking into alternative therapies, like acupuncture, biofeedback, and talking to a therapist.

Tightness in the chest, shortness of breath

This is a symptom that can be associated with cardiac issues, so definitely something to get checked out if it is severe or chronic. But it can also be a more generalized sense of tightness or shortness of breath that comes with anxiety, a common grief reaction. Some describe it as a dull and constant tightness, others experience waves of tightness or shortness of breath, which can especially be associated with encountering grief triggers.

Tips: check out tips for coping with anxiety in grief, as well as some general relaxation approaches like meditation and deep breathing. Learning breathing techniques can be helpful and calming not just with tightness and shortness of breath, but in many difficult and stressful situations. Lastly, check out our post on coping with grief triggers.

Headaches

Yes this is a type of ache/pain, but it is a very specific and very common type. The most common source of headaches is stress and, as you well know if you’re reading this, grief is one, huge, immense, life-encompassing stressor. The constant tension that comes with grief can be a source of chronic headaches.

Tips: there are a lot of lists out there for managing tension headaches, though many only scratch the surface (think cool compresses and an ibuprofen). This list goes a bit deeper than some we’ve seen and may be a good place to start.

Forgetfulness

If there is one thing we hear time and again from grievers it is, It feels like I can’t remember anything! From losing keys, to forgetting to pick kids up from daycare, to missing meetings or appointments, and on and on, forgetfulness can start to feel like a new way of life. This is even the case for folks who used to have the memory of an elephant. Try not to get too worried. For most people, this slowly improves with time. There are also some ways you can cope. If you don’t see this improving, talk to your doctor to make sure nothing else is going on!

Tips: Use the simple tools at your disposal: to-do lists, phone alerts/reminders, phone calendars with alerts (that you can set a day or week in advance, so you aren’t getting the first reminder 5 minutes before!). Create an “important stuff” spot in your house – it doesn’t have to be organized, but if it is something really important at least you know what general area it is in. Try to keep a sense of humor – it is hard to laugh at yourself when you get to the grocery store without your purse, when you’re emotionally teetering and about to burst into tears, but it can help if you can muster it. I was looking for other good resources or articles on this topic and struggled to find much. If you have a good suggestion, please leave a comment!

Inability to focus

You may be seeing a connection here. Focus when you are under stress, distracted and forgetful, or struggling with fatigue or headaches, can feel impossible to achieve. You may find yourself totally zoning out in meetings, in class, in conversations, and almost anywhere else. Sometimes you may be distracted specifically thinking of your loved one or the life stressors that have come with the loss. Sometimes it is simply being unable to take in new information so you space out totally. Either way, it is normal, as crazy as it feels.

Tips: improving focus can be tough, even when grief isn’t involved. Personally, I struggle with focus so I *may* not be the best person to speak to this one. I read a LOT of books, articles, and tips but find very few that make a big impact when something like grief or other emotional stress is at play. That said, there are definitely ways you can improve your environment and habits at work or school that can help. Check out this post from mindtools.com for some good, manageable ideas.

Appetite changes or digestive issues

Maybe you have only eaten 2 pieces of toast all week. Maybe you stopped at McDonald’s three times yesterday. Whether it is significant increases or decreases, changes in appetite are normal with grief and many other life stressors. Even if you’re appetite has stayed the same you may experience feelings of nausea or other digestive issues that can come with grief and stress.

Tips: food is connected to both physical and emotional health, so trying to get this in check is important. If you are struggling with eating enough, it is important to make sure your basic nutritional needs met. If you are eating minimally, focus on making sure the foods you are eating are high in vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. A healthy smoothie or soup with a good balance of fats, proteins, and carbs can go a long way in helping you get what you need. We have a post here from a wellness coach on tips for trying to eat healthy, even when you have no motivation. If over-eating is your problem, you’re not alone. This is a common issue in emotionally difficult times and we have a post on that too!

Getting sick more often

There is plenty of research showing that stress in general, and grief specifically, can take a toll on the immune system. Couple that with not getting enough sleep, not eating well, and general fatigue that makes self-care a challenge and it is a recipe for getting sick. Research has shown this impact on the immune system is most significant in older adults who are grieving.

Tips: following suggestions for many of the other physical grief symptoms mentioned above can help with this one – sleep, eating well, and managing stress can all help in lowering your risk for getting sick. In addition, you can also talk to your doctor about nutrition and supplements that help with boosting your immune system.

If you are looking for some general tips on taking care of yourself, don’t miss Eleanor’s epic list of 64 self-care tips.

Leave a comment to share how physical grief symptoms have impacted you and any tips you have for coping!

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