How to Cope With the Physical Effects of Grief

Man grieving in bed.
SasinParaksa / iStock

Many people mistakenly believe that grief is a single emotion, but normal grief is actually a powerful, multifaceted, and often uncontrollable response that human beings experience following a personally painful or traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one. In other words, grief can affect us not only emotionally but also physically, mentally, and even spiritually.

When you are experiencing grief, you may feel it both mentally and physically. During this time, you may experience a variety of physical symptoms that are part of the normal grief response.

This article discusses some of the physical symptoms of grief and describes some of the strategies that you can use to cope.

Digestive Problems and Weight Changes

Often connected with the disruption to normal eating habits or routines, bereavement can often cause temporary digestive problems such as constipation, diarrhea, stomach pain, a "hollow feeling" in the stomach, queasiness, or feeling nauseated.

Changes in weight are also common. In the days, weeks, and months following a death, people often add a few pounds to their normal weight. Lack of exercise, lack of personal care, overeating, eating out more often, and eating more junk food can play a role in weight changes. Isolation from loved ones who might otherwise encourage healthier or more-regular eating habits can also be a contributing factor.

When grieving a death, many people "under eat," fail to eat regular meals, or simply eat nothing at all. Particularly during the first several days or first weeks following the death, mourners tasked with planning the funeral, memorial, interment services might find the myriad of necessary details and decisions—as well as the influx of relatives and friends—distracting and simply find themselves eating when they can, at odd times, or simply "on the go."

Recap

Grief can contribute to stomach upset as well as changes in weight. Grief also often creates an emotional distraction that can create a general feeling of apathy about one's physical well-being and personal care.

Pain, Discomfort, or Illness

The brain can trigger genuine physical responses to real or imagined things we perceive. The experience of grieving a death can induce genuine feelings of pain or discomfort in our bodies, such as headaches or migraines, heart pain, heaviness in the limbs, aches in the neck, back, or skeletal joints, or overall muscular pain.

In addition, one study found that people already at high cardiovascular risk might experience an increased risk of a heart attack in the days following the death of a significant person.

The stress of losing a loved one to death and the subsequent grief can reduce or suppress your immune system, making you more susceptible to coming down with a cold or catching the flu. In addition, those with an existing chronic health condition might experience a worsening of their symptoms.

Research has also shown that grief is linked to increased levels of inflammation in the body. Inflammation is a predictor of cardiovascular issues, other illnesses, and increased mortality.

Sleep Problems

Trouble falling asleep at night or outright insomnia can deprive a grieving individual of the necessary recuperative benefits provided by a good night's sleep. This lack of sleep can affect their appearance, such as creating puffiness in the face and eyes, among other things.

In addition, a lack of adequate sleep due to grief often affects an individual's physical coordination, cognitive functionality and response, and blood pressure.

While sleep is an essential daily human function, sleeping for too many hours at a time, or throughout the day, can actually sap your energy and leave you feeling lethargic.

Unfortunately, sleeping offers a "refuge" that often helps mourners temporarily escape the pain of grief, so regardless of whether a grieving person naturally sleeps too long or chooses to catch a few more Zzs by taking a nap, many people mourning a death wake up feeling less than refreshed after too many hours.

Recap

Grief can lead to problems with sleep. Getting too much or too little sleep can then contribute to other problems including fatigue.  

Difficulty With Daily Activities

Other common physical symptoms of grief can make it difficult to cope with daily activities. For example, you may experience symptoms of fatigue or nervousness that make it challenging to manage normal tasks.

Grief is hard work and, as noted above, takes a toll on our bodies. For numerous reasons, including poor eating habits and disrupted sleep patterns, grievers often experience low energy levels, feelings of fatigue, or weakness in their muscles.

Feeling nervous or anxious often manifests itself in physical ways, such as tapping your fingers, pacing back and forth, fidgetiness, an inability to sit and relax in one place for long, sweaty or clammy hands/feet, or feelings of tingling or numbness in those same extremities.

In addition to the physical effects you might experience when grieving a death, some mourners have also reported experiencing dry mouth, noise sensitivity, trembling or feeling shaky, tightness in the throat or chest, shortness of breath, and increased allergy symptoms.

What Is Complicated Grief?

Around 7% of bereaved individuals will experience what is known as complicated grief. This involves the continued presence of intense symptoms of grief that persist longer than the normal grieving period. These symptoms include an inability to focus on anything other than the death, intense feelings of anger and sadness, feelings of hopelessness, and difficulty accepting the reality of the death.

Coping With Grief

Unfortunately, there is no method to eliminate or avoid the physical effects you might experience after a loss. While difficult and often painful, grief is a normal and necessary response to the death of a loved one, and most people will see a reduction of grief-induced physical effects with the passage of time.

For some symptoms, such as stomach upset, over-the-counter medications may be helpful. Always take these medications as directed on the label.

If any of the physical effects you're experiencing do not subside in time or feel unbearable, you should consult your physician or healthcare provider. This is particularly the case for pain or physical discomfort, digestive problems, illness or flu, or if an existing chronic health issue worsens.

If you or a loved one are struggling with grief, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

In addition, the most important way you can help yourself while grieving is to take care of yourself and your needs. Many of the physical effects of grief listed above arise from the failure to listen to our bodies and practice the healthy habits we otherwise might. Here are several important ways grievers can care for themselves.

Stay Hydrated

Drink plenty of water throughout the day and avoid excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol acts as a diuretic and can actually dehydrate your body.

Exercise

If you regularly exercised before the death of your loved one, then try to continue that routine as much as possible. And if you led a sedentary lifestyle, then consider finding some time to exercise each day, such as taking your dog for a walk, riding your bike, or asking a friend to stroll with you in the local park or shopping mall.

Even moderate daily exercise can help you sleep better, help work out some muscle stiffness or discomfort, and can often lift your spirits and improve your outlook.

Eat Nutritious, Nourishing Foods

As noted above, grievers often find it difficult to have a meal even if they feel like eating. At times like this, consider eating several smaller meals during the day if your schedule interferes with your usual breakfast, lunch, and dinner routine.

In addition, the foods you consume should consist of healthy, nourishing items rather than fast food or something you purchase from a vending machine. If you lack the time or energy to shop for groceries, consider asking a loved one to visit the market for you.

Rest

While grief typically disrupts our normal sleep patterns, getting proper rest is important. To whatever extent possible, try to develop a regular bedtime routine and schedule; minimize distractions, such as a television, iPad or tablet, or cell phone; and keep your bedroom dark. In addition, try to avoid caffeinated drinks for at least three hours before bedtime.

Make Plans

Making plans for the future and staying busy can also help with the physical pain of grief. Having things to do in the future can give you something to look forward to. Staying busy at the moment can help take your mind off of your discomfort and grief.

Recap

While there isn't any quick or easy way to relieve the physical symptoms of grief, there are steps you can take to start feeling better. Staying hydrated, being physically active, eating well, and getting plenty of rest can help. Making plans for the future can also offer a distraction from your physical symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

People don't just experience grief on an emotional level; they also feel it on a physical one as well. These symptoms can be concerning at times, but it is important to recognize that the physical pain you feel is a normal part of the grieving process.

Many of these symptoms gradually resolve on their own with time. However, if they are causing serious impairment or lasting longer than you think they should, don't be afraid to talk to your healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long do the physical symptoms of grief last?

    Many of the most intense physical symptoms of grief occur in the first few days and weeks after a loss. Others may last longer, but often gradually improve on their own as you begin to heal. Many people start to feel better within six to eight weeks and most grief symptoms largely resolve within one to two years.

  • What does grief do to your body?

    Grief can cause a variety of effects on the body including increased inflammation, joint pain, headaches, and digestive problems. It can also lower your immunity, making you more susceptible to illness. Grief also can contribute to cardiovascular problems, difficulty sleeping, and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

  • What are physical symptoms of grief in children?

    Kids may display their symptoms somewhat differently than adults. Some of the physical symptoms a child may experience include headaches, stomachaches, problems sleeping, nightmares, and changes in appetite. Children may have a harder time describing what they are feeling or understanding the source of these symptoms.

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12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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