Monday, March 11, 2013

Physical Reactions to Loss

[Reviewed and updated December22, 2022]

A sorrow that has no vent in tears makes other organs weep. ~ Dr. Henry Maudsley

When the stress of an emotional injury is felt, there will be warning signs in the body. Expressing emotional pain indirectly through physical symptoms may be more acceptable in some families, and more worthy of attention. But it is very hard on the body and it can be dangerous. When you don’t express your emotional pain directly, your body may do it for you.

Grief can cause any of these physical symptoms:

Low energy: needing more rest; tiring more quickly; feeling generally fatigued

Hyperactivity: an intense state of arousal or panicky feeling; bursts of physical energy; difficulty sitting still; needing to move around

Crisis response: elevated heart rate, high blood pressure, muscle tension, dizziness, weakness, headaches, not feeling well, tightness in the throat and chest, shortness of breath, dry mouth, feeling overwhelmed

Susceptibility to illness: suppression of the body’s immune system

Aggravation of pre-existing chronic medical conditions or precipitation of new ones: ulcers, colitis, hiatal hernia, arthritis, asthma, migraines, back pain

Sighing or yawning: shallow breathing; inhaling frequently; trying to catch your breath

Feeling off balance, uncoordinated


Temporary hair loss

Internalizing, or taking on symptoms of the illness your loved one had

Erratic eating and sleeping patterns: insomnia, weight loss or gain

Susceptibility to the abuse of drugs, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and food

Heaviness; feeling as if you’re made of lead

Feeling “out of sync” with your body

Distorted perception of time and distance

Caring for yourself won’t erase your grief, but it will offer a welcome respite from it. Pampering yourself with “food for the soul” (such as a massage, manicure, pedicure, facial or bath) releases body tension and makes you feel nurtured. Even though your energy is low and you don’t feel like establishing a healthy routine, force yourself to do it anyway. Pay careful attention to your need for nutrition, rest and relaxation, exercise and human contact.

Nutrition can suffer because appetites often shift after loss. In an effort to comfort and nurture yourself, you may eat more than usual, or you may have trouble eating anything at all. Stress can interfere with the absorption of important nutrients, while fats and sugars deplete energy.

Rest and relaxation are essential. Because rest relieves, restores and refreshes you, it is important that you make time in your day for “mindless” activity, or get away for a relaxing weekend. Your usual sleep pattern may be disrupted in the first few weeks of grief. You may not sleep well at all, or you may sleep more than usual as a way to avoid or shut out the pain.

Exercise is good for you, since regular physical activity stimulates the release of biochemicals in your body that relieve pain, alleviate stress and enhance your sense of well being. Exercise increases your circulation, stimulates your heart, cleanses your body, discharges negative energy, and gets you out and about.

Human contact is a basic human need. Touching, hugging, holding, and having contact with another is comforting and healing.

Suggestions for Coping with Physical Symptoms

Ask someone to stay with you to help you focus and prioritize what needs to get done.

Inform your physician what’s happening in your life, so your blood pressure, weight changes and other health indicators can be monitored.

Know you will make it through these episodes, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

Recognize that your thinking processes, coordination and reaction time aren’t up to par right now.

Breathe. Frequently throughout the day, stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath, hold it, then exhale very slowly.

If your diet is not well balanced, try supplementing it with vitamins and minerals. Add fruits, vegetables and grains. Eat smaller, more frequent meals rather than three big ones. Eat foods you like that are easy to fix and digest, and include a special treat now and then.

Drink plenty of water.

Find an exercise you can do (stretching, walking, swimming, dancing, swinging or swaying to music) and set aside time to do it regularly.

Reach out and touch someone. Cuddle children and pets; hold hands with your friends; get a massage.

Attend to personal grooming (hair, skin, nails, wardrobe) that will enhance your body image. There is truth in the saying that when you look good, you feel good too.

If you’re having trouble sleeping, try using some of the suggestions listed here: Tips for Coping with Sleeplessness in Grief

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  1. Absolutely!

    One of the hardest part of caring for others is scheduling time to look after yourself too.

    Thanks for the great list.

  2. I loved this article, lost my appetite, couldn't sleep--except when I shouldn't be sleeping, felt anxious, panicky, restless, and then exhausted for months and months. Beginning nearly 6 mos out to finally feel a little better. I like the part about human contact and self care. So important to not follow that weird instinct to isolate. Thanks for sharing. xx


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