When you learn how grief shows up in your body, you can be more equipped to address it and work through the process of grief and loss.
Grief, like all emotions, isn’t just in your head. It shows up in your body in remarkable ways. But most people have never been taught what is common in the grieving process and how grief does show up in your body. And this can leave some people feeling stuck, spiraling through endless grief and pain.
When you learn how grief shows up in your body you can be more equipped to address it and work through the process of grief and loss.
In this video we’re going to learn from grief expert Dr. Dorothy Holinger. She’s the author of the Anatomy of Grief. We’re going to learn about how grief shows up in the body and what we can do to work through it.
Now, I recently recorded an interview with Dorothy about how grief impacts the body, but unfortunately some of the video files got corrupted, so I’m summarizing our conversation here. The full-length interview is on my podcast.
1. Grief in the Brain: The Fight/Flight/Freeze Response
So first let’s talk about how grief shows up in the brain. When you first hear of an intense loss, your brain essentially perceives it as a threat to your survival, and the amygdala triggers the stress response, also known as the fight/flight/freeze response.
Loss is an intense stress. People may fight. They may scream, yell, or get furious that someone is gone. They may flee. They may run away, deny the loss, or avoid talking or thinking about it. Or they may freeze. They may faint, go numb or mute, or just shut down completely. This initial response is acute, but it eventually resolves.
2. Grief Can Cause Broken Heart Syndrome
Let’s talk about how grief affects the heart organ. Acute grief can stun the heart and result in broken heart syndrome. The intense emotions and the adrenaline from the stress response can cause the heart to physically swell and take an abnormal shape. The heartbeat speeds up, and this can cause a physical strain on the heart.
Now, for most people going through grief, their heart can handle it. But for people over 65 there’s a 21 times greater chance of a heart attack the day after the loss of a spouse.
Some of you may have heard that after the horrible tragedy at the Uvalde school, the husband of one of the teachers who was killed there also died from a heart attack. This may have been caused by broken heart syndrome.
Now, this was a really tragic situation. But for most people these physical changes in the heart, they reverse after the acute grief period has passed.
As a side note, it’s also interesting to me that intense happiness can also enlarge the heart, but it’s a different part of the heart.
3. Tears of Grief
Let’s talk about crying for a moment before we discuss other physical changes during grief.
So how do tears play into the grief process? Are they healing? It’s really common for people to cry, to scream, to sob as part of the grieving process. Even other animals like elephants seem to shed tears when they’re experiencing grief.
There are three chemically different types of tears: basal tears, which are the regular moistening tears that happen throughout the day; reflex tears, which happen when there’s an irritant, like when you cut an onion; and emotional tears. These actually contain protein-based stress hormones, one of which is leucine-enkephalin. And it’s related to endorphins, and it’s a natural painkiller.
So the biochemical composition of tears is actually healthy and healing on a physical level.
4. Loss of Pleasure After a Loss
So what are some of the other ways that grief impacts the body? Number four is decreased pleasure. The physical senses like taste, touch, sight are no longer enjoyable. Food may seem tasteless. And the stress response can lead to number five, which is loss of appetite and difficulty eating.
5. Changes in appetite while grieving
So the stress response slows digestion and diverts energy to survival responses. And it’s very common for the bereaved to lose weight and to struggle to eat after a loss. For other people the stress response can lead to overeating and weight gain.
6. Does Grief Cause Insomnia?
Number six: another common symptom is difficulty sleeping and insomnia.
7. How Grief Affects the Immune System
Number seven: the stress of grief can also temporarily weaken the immune system. And it’s not uncommon to get sick after a loss, but also around anniversaries of the loss. It’s like the body is asking the bereaved to address their loss.
8. Grief Can Cause Headaches and Other Body Aches
Headaches and other body aches are also common after loss and just in general when grief is overwhelming or the survivor is unable to face or process grief.
9. Somatic Changes After a Loss
Sometimes that emotional pain shows up in somatic changes, in changes in the body, and this tends to be most common when survivors are suppressing their feelings, when they’re masking them or attempting to avoid or distract themselves from the pain. They may feel numb or disconnected from their body.
Dr. Holinger shares the story of a woman whose baby died and afterward she lost her sense of hearing. Voices sounded muted and indecipherable and she couldn’t hear any sounds normally. But doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with her ears.
Dr. Holinger continues in her book, she says, “She didn’t hear fully for as long as she couldn’t accept the death of her baby. When she was able to admit that her baby had died, her hearing returned. As she put it, when her hearing came back, her grieving began.
“The bereaved mother had to detach herself from all sounds because she couldn’t bear not to hear the sounds of her baby. Not being able to hear at full capacity was the path that Mrs. M’s sorrow took through her body.”
Hope for Those Who Mourn
Now, sometimes survivors don’t feel like they’re allowed to mourn because they aren’t the primary person like a parent or a spouse, or their culture or their status doesn’t allow them to show grief. But suppressing feelings just doesn’t work in the long run. So the grief may emerge as a physical symptom, which can also be a distraction from the emotional pain.
But when grief is processed, when loss is addressed and acknowledged and accommodated, the brain can gradually make space for the new reality. Grief can become less intense. Or, rather, our ability to move forward grows. Our ability to feel those feelings and continue on with life strengthens.
So what do we do about these changes? I’m not going to pretend that grief is some easy thing that can or should be fixed, but there are some things that you can do to help your heart and body work through the suffering. And these include exercise, making sleep a priority, prioritizing good nutrition, and especially making time for social contact.
Be around people. Don’t stop doing enriching and pleasurable activities, even if they don’t feel good. Over time you’ll be able to enjoy them again.
I’m really grateful to Dr. Holinger for taking the time to share this information with me. I hope you found it helpful. Thank you for watching, and take care.