We all know the feeling of having lost a loved one - be it a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, a partner, a child, or a pet. If you are reading this article because you have recently lost someone, please know that my heart is with you and remember that it is really okay, to not be okay right now.
Obviously, grief is a very emotional experience and it is also a very unique one - every person has their own way of grieving. Any experience is valid and normal and grief also has no expiration date. For some people, it involves crying (maybe just for 5 minutes, maybe for days or longer), some people seem to go numb, becoming more introverted, maybe isolating themselves from the world so that they can try to grieve in peace and quiet. Other people tell stories about the deceased, celebrating their lives and their time together. And yet other people get sick. Headaches, stomach pain, loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue… The body can react quite intensely to losing someone you care about.
Broken Heart syndrome
One of the most known examples of bodily reactions to grief is the so-called “broken heart syndrome”. Originally described and investigated in Japan in the 90s, it is essentially a stress-induced cardiomyopathy. This means that the heart pumps more blood through the vessels in response to an emotional or physical stressor. And this can be anything from a natural disaster, to an accident - or the loss of a loved one. The symptoms look exactly like a heart attack:
Grief = Stress
While broken heart syndrome is an intense reaction, your body may give you more subtle hints that it is grieving. Grief essentially puts the body under stress and the body has a more or less standard protocol on how to deal with stress. The hypothalamus (aka the brain's “relay station” as it connects your hormonal system with your nervous system) signals to your autonomic nervous system and the pituitary gland. This essentially controls your fight-flight-freeze response, both on a muscular level as well as a hormonal level causing an array of bodily reactions:
As with any type of stress, prolonged grief can therefore lead to increased blood pressure which, in turn, can (partially) cause other medical conditions by damaging a variety of organs including the heart (causing coronary artery disease, heart failure a.o.) and the brain (causing a stroke or dementia, a.o.).
Grief can increase inflammation, especially when it coincides with depression (which, understandably, can be the case quite frequently). Research even points to the fact that those who are impacted more severely by grief, show more inflammation (Fagundes et al., 2019). This further explains why bereaved spouses are at an increased risk for cardiovascular events in the first couple of months after the loss of their partners.
What else causes grief?
Frankly, anything can cause a reaction of grief - that’s how individual the experience is. That being said, aside from losing a loved one, other situations that commonly cause a grief reaction (even though it may often be dismissed as an “overreaction”) include:
This is by no means an exhaustive list. It should just serve you as a reminder that the experience of any loss is difficult for someone. We may not always understand why someone is reacting with grief to a loss that seems insignificant for us but remember that it is okay, not to be okay - for anyone.
“You don’t move on from grief, you move on with it.”
What to do if you’re struggling
At the risk of repeating myself, remember that it is really okay, not to be okay.
If you feel that you are struggling, do not hesitate to reach out to friends and family, talk about your experience with grief. You don’t move on from grief, you move on with it. It’s a great time to practice self-compassion.
For more resources not only on exploring your own grief but also supporting someone who is grieving, check out What's your Grief.
Don’t hesitate to reach out for professional support as well. Our experienced psychologists here at Antiloneliness are here for you.
Written by Johanna Perschl, Intern Psychologist at AntiLoneliness
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