Physical Stress of Grieving

By Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.

When we experience a loss, a very ancient reaction is triggered in our brain: the fight-or-flight response. More than one researcher has remarked on the deep evolutionary roots of this response to loss. The reason we have such terrible pain, they say, is that far back in the timeless past we learned, as a species, that we had to bond with others in order to find food and to protect ourselves from enemies. To break those bonds was to die ourselves. Even now, when the bonds we have with others are disturbed, at some deep level we fear for our very survival.

Because we sense that we are in danger, the body mobilizes to protect itself from the intruder or, if that’s not possible, to escape to safety. But loss is no hostile tribe that we can guard the camp against; nor is it an enemy that we can run from. Therefore we are caught in a state of tension. Our brain has stimulated us to take action; but, since we cannot undo the loss there is at this moment no action we can take. We are, therefore, held taut. This means that our bodies are under enormous stress…Dr. Beverley Raphael warns us that “bereavement may also be fatal.”
(Excerpt from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)

Grieving is hard work and takes a huge toll on our bodies. When we are responding to a loss, the part of our brain where responses are integrated increases the production of CRH, a hormone that produces anxiety-like symptoms. Emergency-mobilizing chemicals are released. As our stress increases, the chemical levels increase; and our central nervous system becomes highly stimulated. Our breathing may become defective. Biological rhythms of sleeping and eating are disturbed. Our digestion, metabolism, circulation and respiration change. Our ability to concentrate and pay attention decreases.

Grieving can actually change the environment in the belly, intestines and bowels. “I feel as if I’ve been hit in the stomach,” we might say. “My stomach is in knots,” someone else may offer as a description of the physical stress triggered by a loss. These reactions can actually rearrange the muscles and sometimes even our body’s skeleton, in particular patterns for particular lengths of time. We may make sounds, like a moan or a growl. Our brain produces pictures that upset us even more.

Often the physical stress of grieving will cause us to lose coordination. We fall more easily. We don’t run our daily lives as smoothly as we did. Even simple things seem hard to do. Our brain and our eyes don’t coordinate the way they did before the loss. We are prone to have more accidents. We get more colds. Our immune system is compromised. We tire easily.

Numerous diseases are linked to grieving. This does not mean that grief causes the diseases. But research does suggest that there can be a connection between the stress of grieving and the appearance of certain diseases. Here’s just a partial list: cardiovascular disorders, cancer, pernicious anemia, ulcerative colitis, leukemia, lymphoma, lupus, pneumonia, diabetes, influenza, glaucoma. Dr. Erich Lindemann adds to that list: high blood pressure, chronic itching, rheumatoid arthritis. And Dr. Glen Davidson adds: chronic depression, alcoholism, drug dependency and malnutrition.

What Can We Do

There’s an ancient Chinese saying, “To name a thing is to tame it.” The most important thing is to understand that we are in a state of emergency. It is always good to get a complete physical checkup at least within the first five months of grieving the loss of someone central in our lives.

And on a daily basis we can do things like this:

  • Taking sufficient time off from work
  • Eating as well as you can
  • Drinking water
  • Loafing and Resting
  • Moving our bodies—a walk, bike ride, swimming
  • Getting massages
  • Listening to music
  • Simplifying our schedules
  • Cutting out activities that take up time and energy we don’t now have
  • Praying and meditating
  • Talking to a professional

A Personal Example

Here is what a man told me about how he is dealing with the stress of grieving:

The other day, a friend asked me what I was doing in this stressful time to take dare care of myself. I replied, “I’m taking care of myself by not working too hard at my law practice, joining a choir, and doing my best to nurture myself and not put myself down. I have a regular massage, and also I’m seeing a counselor on a weekly basis. I regularly go to synagogue and obtain spiritual nourishment, and I’m reading a good book on grief. (Excerpt from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)

Related articles:
The Grief Experience
Running Through the Pain
Comfort Quickies: Self-Care While Grieving
I Need to Exercise: Walking 'Down' Times Away
How to Make It Through the Night

Also by Elizabeth Harper Neeld:
What Helps When We’re Experiencing the Unthinkable
What Helps When We’re Stumbling in the Dark
The Little Things We Do Make Us Stronger

Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, advisor, and author of more than twenty books - including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World - she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.

Author's photo by Joey Bieber

Image: cupcakes2/Flickr Creative Commons


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Comment by NICOLE LYNN PATTI on March 22, 2013 at 4:40pm

Forgiveness = Wisdom = Freedom 

Comment by Mark A. Mandel on December 23, 2011 at 12:40pm

I have just joined this website, 2mos after the death of my wife after 43 years of coupleship and 39 of marriage. I think I will find it very helpful, and I am about to print out this article.

Comment by ms. cooper on October 26, 2011 at 1:39am
on august 25th 2010 i lost my youngest son, scotty, he was murdered, he was only 22yrs old.. everyday i think about him and try to make sense of it. i think there should have been something i could have done to save him.. i see dates on tv and think he was only a certain age and if only i would have known.. the emptiness i feel is so over whelming.."will it ever get better" i ask myself every day. if it had been an accident i think i could have dealt with it better maybe.. i pray everyday to make the pain bareable...
Comment by Carol CLine on May 20, 2011 at 12:51am

Last year I lost a dear college friend due to a car accident one Saturday afternoon... I took it very hard to the point it deeply shocked myself the way I handled a death of a loved one. That was the first time in my life I truly understood the impact of having an open casket funeral. The second I could see my friend there all peaceful a wave of calmness washed over me and I know she is alright now and in a better place.


Potty Training

Comment by john studdard on November 25, 2010 at 4:25pm
The greatest piece of advice, I've ever received in respect to dealing with loss is simply "this too shall pass". Time is great healer, and keeping this perspective can only help. I know from my own personal circumstances, things that I thought I would never get over, have eventually healed and now only a faint mental scar remains, when in the past it was large gashing wound.

anxiety attack symptoms
Comment by Sharon on July 14, 2010 at 4:11am
All of you sound so strong...I am only getting worse...
Comment by Priceless on January 30, 2010 at 8:36pm
I attended retreats etc. It was very helpful to get away in a spiritual environment where I could be with others and yet have alone time. No TV, no radio, no computer (I did keep my cell phone with me, though). This was helpful after my parents died. Important to plan on going somewhere, register to be there. Now that I am laid off, in the beginning I thought a week off will do me good before I look for a job. Well I starting looking on the internet, just to see what was out there. Then I thought I can look, so no opportunities in my current field are not missed; however I can take some time off also. When I was working I used my vacation to always go places. Now I relax at home, and a place in the city I can go. Now it is time to very seriously look for a job.
This website is so helpful and great. I wish I would of found this sooner after my parents died; it would of been helpful then.
Comment by James J on August 19, 2009 at 9:01pm
My brother committed suicide two weeks ago, he was 38. I've been mourning his loss with bouts of anger, grief, guilt, etc. Today, I had what I presumed to be anxiety attacks. Never had one before. Had to call off work. Spent the whole day with pounding chest and fear that something terrible was happening or that I was in trouble for something. My wife is out of town and I spoke with her on the phone about that, she admitted having similar feelings. This article explains this to a great degree. I feel somewhat relieved, thanks.
Comment by Linda on June 30, 2009 at 12:31am
At my age of 68 I have lost many, husband, fiancee, parents, but the loss of a grandchild at his prime (23) seems almost too much. My only hope is that I will see him in heaven because he gave his heart to the Lord 3 days before he died.
Comment by Steve Cain on June 26, 2009 at 7:43am
Wow. I know I'm going to need a lot of help in the next days and weeks and however long to come. I am relating exactly like this.

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