Up to one-third of the people most directly affected by a major loss will suffer negative effects on their physical or mental health (or both). Grief manifests itself in a variety of ways depending on an individual’s personality, religious beliefs, and culture. Few of us are strangers to the kind of engulfing grief that comes with the death of a loved one, but can that pain be hurting more than just our emotions?
As our understanding of the relationship between our hearts and health evolves, what is becoming clear is that those deep feelings of sadness and despair are also impacting our health.
Can Grief Make Me Sick?
Regardless of how it shows up, one of the primary ways grief affects us is by weakening the immune system as a form of stress.
When our immune system is weak, we’re more prone to illness, and even disease. The stress hormones triggered by grief have been shown to impact our hearts, causing stress cardiomyopathy and acute heart attacks. Specific populations like children and the elderly are at increased risk of this kind of distress.
When Grief Doesn’t End
Bereavement can also impact us mentally. Grief can lead to depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and actions, and traumatic grief or post-traumatic stress disorder.
It can also lead to something deeper. “Normal grief” is the deep sadness we usually picture and is described by psychologists as what most individuals experience when losing a loved one. Grief that becomes protracted, however, is called complicated grief and affects 10 to 20 percent of people after the death of a spouse or romantic partner.
Is There Hope?
Those experiencing the aftershocks of a major loss in their lives are not without resources.
- Complicated grief therapy (CGT). CGT is a type of therapy that involves techniques such as repeatedly telling the story of the death and focusing on personal goals in relationships. It has proven helpful to those individuals who experience complicated grief.
- Regular exercise. Consistent, moderate physical activity has been found to be as successful in treating depression as antidepressants.
- Short-term prescription sedatives or anti-anxiety medications can be helpful during the first crush of grief if anxiety or sleeplessness become issues. Talk to your doctor.
- Seeing a grief counselor can help you process, work through, and find relief from your emotions after a loss.
- While many believe that grief never truly ends, the above treatments can help individuals restore a sense of hope, easing grief’s impact if not its presence.
Sally Collins is a professional freelance writer with many years’ experience across many different areas. She made the move to freelancing from a stressful corporate job and loves the work-life balance it offers her. When not at work, Sally enjoys reading, hiking, spending time with her family and travelling as much as possible.