After losing a loved one, words like heartbroken or hurt are regularly used to describe our feelings. 'Heartsarnes' (meaning 'grief' in Old English) literally translates as heart soreness. So it comes as little surprise that grief is often associated with physical, as well as mental, pain. In his book, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis even likened bereavement to a feeling of being 'mildly drunk or concussed.'
For Caroline Arnold, grief manifested itself in to physical symptoms:
"My boyfriend of five years, Jon, died in a freak motorbike accident. Initially, I was in complete and utter shock. I simply refused to believe what had happened. I completely bottled everything up until two months later when I went to see his family. Words can't describe how I felt – nothing in the world can prepare you for it. Not long after, I was at my nephew's christening and I suddenly had a panic attack and realised it was the first time I'd been in a church since the funeral. After his death, I drove back to my parent's house in Devon from London and didn't go back for three years. I spent this time in bed being looked after by my family. I was tired, had interrupted sleep and couldn't eat. I went to see various counselors, which helped as I found it easier to deal with my anger. I also saw a hypnotherapist, a PT, started a course of anti-depressants and read lots of books on anxiety, grief and depression, and – with the help of my family – gradually rebuilt my life."
How does grief affect your body?
1. An irregular heartbeat
Recent research suggests that grief can really break your heart. The observational study of 88,6000 people, published in the Open Heart journal, found those who lose a spouse or partner are more likely to develop an irregular heartbeat, particularly if they're younger than 60 years of age or the loved one died unexpectedly. The risk ofatrial fibrillation (a quivering heartbeat) was 41% higher among people grieving the death of a partner. The effects were greatest 8-14 days after a death and only eased completely after a year. Not only should people seek support after a loss, but experts say that this research is more reason for doctors to ask about a patient's personal life.
2. Decreased immunity
Another piece of recent research in the journal Age and Immunity found that among the elderly, the recent loss of a loved one could leave a person more susceptible to infectious disease. The older mourners (with an average age of 72) were found to have reduced function of the neutrophils, a white blood cell used to fight off infections. The researchers say that hormonal supplements or similar products could be used to help people at an increased risk of stress, and that a strong network of family and friends are needed to manage the risks.
3. Feelings of anxiety
According to the British Psychological Society, physical ill health is a symptom of grief and can manifest itself in to anxiety-like symptoms. In the case of sudden death, physical affects can be related to trauma and stress, such as a churning stomach, a racing heart, shakes and being hypersensitive to noise. Nightmares are also common, as are weight changes and tiredness.
4. Skin problems
Psychotherapist Amanda Falkson and therapeutic explains that her clients experience a plethora of physical symptoms. She says:
"Manifesting physical pain isn't unusual, nor are skin or respiratory issues. The skin is the largest organ of the body. When we are anguished, in pain and stressed skin issues can erupt. I've noticed skin issues in people particularly when they suppress their emotions. In Chinese medical tradition, lungs and sinuses are linked to grieving."
Ways to cope with grief:
In order to cope with grief, Amanda explains that you need to pay attention to your body and not bottle up your feelings. She adds:
"Allow yourself to have your tears if they want to come. If you feel angry then find somewhere where you won't be overheard and have a good shout. Take the time you need to grieve. Don't isolate yourself. Don't bottle things up – there's no prize for being stoic. If you need to talk don't worry about being a burden on friends, they too will need your support one day – this time it's your turn. Talk about the person you have lost, it's an important part of letting go. See if there's a bereavement service in your area, ask your GP if they have a counselling service or consider seeing a counsellor privately. If you are a person of faith, spiritual counselling may be on offer through your place of worship."
And if you want to see someone about your physical pain…
"A GP is one of your options, especially if you feel you need medication to help with sleeping or anxiety. However, you might also want to consider visiting a practitioner who would work with you through the healing process over time: a counsellor or psychotherapist perhaps, especially if your relationship with the deceased was a difficult one. Or a physical therapist who could work gently and supportively with you providing massage, aromatherapy, reflexology, cranial osteopathy, etc., to help facilitate a release of grief through touch. This is especially important if the person you have lost used to provide touch."