Grief can cause not just psychological pain

Dear Doctor: Is it true that grief can make you get physically sick? My mom passed away just before Thanksgiving, and I’ve been struggling with my health. I’m having headaches, I’ve had an eczema flare and I caught the first cold I’ve had in three years.

Dear Reader: We have only to look to language to see how closely grief and bereavement are associated with physical pain. Heartsore, heartsick, heartache, brokenhearted -- each word draws a direct line between the emotion of grief and its profound effect on the human body. People who are grieving talk about feeling empty and numb, of being sick with grief. And small wonder. Research shows that, in addition to being an emotional challenge, grief and grieving can indeed take a physical toll on the human body. The sense of loss and longing that are a part of grief often manifest themselves as physical sensations, including a tightness in the throat and chest; a hollow feeling in the solar plexus; physical weakness; aches and pains; lack of energy; and changes to appetite and sleep patterns.

Research into the physical effects of grief suggests that the immune system gets involved by mounting an inflammatory response. A study of older adults who were grieving found the effectiveness of certain white blood cells, which fight off infection, to be measurably reduced. A different study, published in the journal Circulation, found that the day after a significant death, a grieving survivor’s risk of having a heart attack was 21 times higher than normal. A week later, the risk was 6 times as great. The psychological pain of grief can put your physical health in jeopardy.

Another reason grief can be so difficult to endure is that, in addition to being a state of body and of mind, it also is a process. The famous “five stages of grief” theory, which includes denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, suggests an orderly and linear progression. However, reality is far more complex. People can find themselves experiencing multiple stages of grief at one time and revisit them repeatedly.

Eve Glazier, M.D. and Elizabeth Ko, M.D

Grief is classified into two distinct types, acute and persistent. Most people experience the former, which lasts about a year and gradually resolves. In persistent grief, the feelings and symptoms last far longer. Although there’s no quick way out of the physical and emotional pain of mourning a loss, research suggests specific steps can help make it bearable. First, do your best to maintain a healthy diet and get adequate sleep. Physical exercise, including mind-body practices such as yoga, tai chi and qi gong, is important. It can be hard to get motivated, so consider joining an exercise group or taking regular classes.

Be sure to reach out to your social circle. Grief is an isolating experience, and even one social interaction per day can lift your spirits. And consider a support group. The participants will understand what you’re going through. A support group can both show you a way forward and give you a chance to lend someone else a hand when you are able.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)


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