When grief appears in the body

The five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—are a well-discussed framework for understanding life after loss. As helpful as this model is, though, it doesn’t quite tell the whole story of loss. According to psychologists, the physical symptoms of grief should also be a part of the conversation. 

“Grief can affect your body in a number of ways,” says licensed mental health counselor Hallie Kritsas, who specializes in grief and depression. “Grief can be a pretty extreme stressor. Physical symptoms can present as things like insomnia, aches and pains in the body, heart or blood pressure issues, and problems digesting food.” People may also have trouble focusing, she adds. 

While many of us may feel inclined to minimize these physical manifestations of grief, Kritsas says that making space for these physical feelings is just as important as working through our mental landscapes. “Both emotional pain and physical pain are important parts of the grieving process,” she explains. “While the symptoms can resolve themselves over time, it is important to realize that, if they are causing any impairment or are lasting a significant amount of time, do not be afraid to ask for help.” 

4 ways to cope with the physical symptoms of grief

1. Move your body 

A wealth of research shows that movement can help you process grief. Specifically, yoga, walking, and running have been shown to help manage the physical and mental symptoms you’re experiencing. Exercise offers temporary chemicals known for their mood-boosting abilities. 

“You don't have to be an athlete. This can [be a] walk around the block. You'll be amazed by how much it can help you,” says Shana Feibel, DO, adjunct clinical professor at the Southern Ohio University College of Medicine. 

2. Ask for the foods you want

If you’re going through a hard time, chances are your refrigerator is also full of casseroles. While many of us are programmed to reject help and pretend to have it all under control, Feibel says that now is the time to ask your community for help. Specifically, culinary help.

“If someone says, ‘Look, I'm gonna bring some food over, what do you want’ and you say, ‘Oh, no, don't worry about it,’ they're gonna do it anyway, probably. So I would just say, ‘Hey, I really like blankety-blank.’ Or, ‘If you could pick up something from this restaurant, that’s my favorite,’” says Feibel. Now is not the time to force yourself to eat things you don’t like. Ask for what will make you feel nourished, comforted, and secure—and don’t feel ashamed about it. 

3. Ground yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed

Ironically, the physical symptoms of grief can leave you feeling disconnected from your body. That’s why both Kritsas and Feibel recommend thinking about what rituals or habits bring you back to your body. Perhaps you choose meditation, breathing exercises, or something that requires your hands—like cooking, yard work, photography, or knitting. 

Feibel is partial to aromatherapy. She recommends finding a scent or two that comforts you and carrying it with you for a dose of calm anywhere. 

4. Seek help from others

If your physical symptoms become increasingly uncomfortable, it’s time to see a doctor and/or a mental health professional. 

Make sure you’re also filling your calendar with people you love and who understand what you’re going through. Join an online grief group or search for one in your community. Many local churches, worship centers, and community centers offer these types of gatherings, so look—or ask a friend to do it for you. 

If you or someone you love need grief support right now, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 24/7 at 1-800-622-HELP or dial 988.

Calm Health is a mental health wellness product. Calm Health is not intended to diagnose or treat depression, anxiety, or any other disease or condition. Calm Health is not a substitute for care by a physician or other health care provider. Any questions that you may have regarding the diagnosis, care, or treatment of a medical condition should be directed to your physician or health care provider.

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