Unfortunately, grief is an inevitable part of life. Whether it be the death of a loved one, the end of a significant relationship, or the loss of a cherished dream, grief can manifest in many different ways throughout your body. And these manifestations of grief can show up emotionally, mentally, and even physically.
While the emotional and mental aspect of grief has long been acknowledged, the physical toll it can have on your body is often overlooked or misunderstood.
The physical symptoms of grief are the ones that tend to shock us the most, because these symptoms exert a heavy burden on your body during an overwhelmingly challenging and distressing time. From headaches and body aches to insomnia and gut issues, the physiological and physical reactions occurring within your body during the grieving process are all-encompassing. But in order to cope with them effectively — and cope with your grief, itself —it's important to understand them (and normalize them).
What are the physical symptoms of grief and how does grief show up in the body?
The physical symptoms of grief can vary from person to person, but some common examples can include:
Grief can make even simple tasks feel exhausting, leading to overall fatigue and a lack of motivation.
Grief sets off an overwhelmingly strong stress response in the body, increasing both steroid production and hormone production. This excess of chemicals in your system can take a toll on your nervous system, putting you into a fight, flight, fawn, or freeze response that makes everyday tasks seem much more exhausting.
Sleep issues can occur for a multitude of reasons when grieving. Not only is your mind being heavily taxed by the overwhelming amount of emotions you're feeling, but those emotions are also taking a toll on your physical body too.
When you experience grief — and as you continue to experience grief —, waves of cortisol are continuously pumped into the body by your adrenal glands. And it's possible for those adrenal glands to be so overworked by the amount of cortisol they're producing that they eventually cease production altogether.
The connection between the brain and the gut is extreme, which is why grief can intensely affect appetitive, digestion, and the gut in general.
As you’re probably well aware by now, grief throws the body into a severe stress response. And that severe stress response keeps your body in fight or flight mode, making it focus most of its energy on survival and protection rather than on digestion and eating.
It's also said that the changes in eating while grieving — no matter if its eating too much or eating too little — can throw off the gut microbiome, ridding the digestive track of the health bacteria it needs to productively and effectively process food.
Headaches & Muscle Pain
Headaches, muscle pains, and body tension are all common symptoms while experiencing grief. As mentioned before, this is because the grieving process triggers the release of cortisol in the body, stunning and disrupting the organs and muscles it comes into contact with.
Evidence shows that inflammation is triggered throughout the body while grieving, as well as a decrease in immune cell function. Due to this, grief can cause weakened immunity that leads to getting sick more often and having a much longer recovery time.
Heart Palpitations & Heart Issues
Intense emotions and stress from grief can result in heart palpitations, a sensation of tightness in the chest, and even deadly heart issues.
One study conducted by Aarhus University in Denmark shows that someone experiencing grief is 41% prone to being diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AF), which is an irregular heart rhythm.
Shortness of breath, hyperventilation, or a feeling of heaviness in the chest are all common physical symptoms caused by grief. This usually happens when you're trying to push down your grief, attempting to avoid the feeling and hurt that comes with it. By doing this, the unprocessed emotions causes you to breathe shallower, triggering fight or flight mode yet again, and exacerbating your body's stress response even more.
Loss of libido or changes in sexual function can occur due to grief. This is due to the emotional shutdown that happens while grieving that causes you to lose interest in the things you once used to enjoy.
*It's important to remember that these physical symptoms can vary from person to person, and not everyone will experience all of these manifestations.*
Where do we hold grief in our body?
Most of us tend to suppress our feelings on a daily basis. And this is true even when we experience BIG feelings like those that come while grieving.
But suppressing feelings makes it hard to heal. This is because those feelings end up being stored somewhere in our body, and over time, manifesting as all the physical symptoms mentioned above.
So where are you holding your grief???
If you're storing your grief in your lower back:
Your lower back is typically a place that stores unexpressed anger. So while grieving is, of course, a collection of sad emotions, if you're storing your grief in your lower back, this also might mean there's part of you that's angry about that grief.
The most obvious physical symptom you might feel is debilitating pain and pressure in the lumbar region of your back.
If you're storing your grief in your chest:
In Chinese medicine, the chest is actually known as the body's energy storage unit, and is responsible for storing emotions such as grief and sadness — so storing your grief in your chest is quite common.
The physical symptoms of storing your grief in your chest can include a heavy and overbearing sensation in your chest, difficulty breathing, difficult taking deep breaths, tightness, and pressure.
If you're storing your grief in your shoulders:
If you're storing your grief in your shoulders, you may be feeling overburdened by your grief process, making it difficult for you to even know where to start when it comes to grieving.
The physical symptoms of storing your grief in your shoulders include tension, tightness, and/or stiffness in your shoulders, upper back, and neck.
If you're storing your grief in your throat:
If you're storing your grief in your throat, you might be feeling like your feelings and emotions throughout your grief process are being oppressed and unheard. Maybe others are trying to compare their own grief with yours — making you feel like you're not allowed to feel as sad as you do.
The physical symptoms of storing your grief in your throat include throat tightness, a lump sensation, difficulty speaking or swallowing, and even difficult crying.
If you're storing your grief in your stomach:
If you're storing your grief in your stomach, your grief is probably turning into a lot of fear. Whether it's fear of the future, fear of the unknown, or fear of dealing with your grief itself, you're probably experiencing the sensation of being "sick to your stomach" because of it.
The physical symptoms of storing your grief in your stomach include stomachaches, digestive issues, bloating, constipation, loss of appetite, nausea, a sensation of a pit in your stomach, and even the trigger of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
If you're storing your grief in your head:
If you're storing your grief in your head, you probably feel like you're losing control of something in your life as you experience grief. An example of this could be the feeling of losing control of your future as you grieve the loss of a significant other or a long term relationship.
The physical symptoms of storing your grief in your head include headaches, tension, or a heavy sensation in your neck. You can also experience symptoms like difficulty concentrating, memory problems, or a feeling of mental fog.
If you're storing your grief in your jaw:
If you're storing your grief in your jaw, you're probably holding a lot of anger and resentment towards the grief you're experiencing.
The physical symptoms of storing your grief in your jaw include teeth grinding, teeth clenching, jaw pain, headaches, and even the eventual diagnosis TMJ.
If you're storing your grief in your hips:
If you're storing your grief in your hips, you might be someone who feels like their sense of security was taken away after experiencing grief.
The physical symptoms of storing your grief in your hips include sciatic nerve pain, hip popping and clicking, hip pain, and lower back pain.
Why does grief hurt so much?
Grief hurts so much because it affects our entire being, in multiple different ways and across multiple different layers.
While we all know that grief is an incredibly hard emotion to feel and experience, there's one thing about grief that makes it, quite possibly, the hardest emotion to feel and experience. And that's because while grief is causing us to be emotionally and mentally drained, it's also physically depleting our body.
When we experience grief, an overwhelming amount of stress hormones (cortisol) are released from your adrenal glands into your blood stream. And once those stress hormones reach the various parts of your body, they start causing destruction. For example, when that overwhelming amount of cortisol comes into contact with muscle, it'll essentially stun them — leaving you tense and also in serious physical pain.
How long does grief last?
The amount of time you experience grief is based on multiple things — you as a person, what you experienced, where your grief is stored, your support system, and your coping mechanisms. So unfortunately, there's no set timeline for getting over your grief.
Some individuals may find that their grief begins to ease after several months, while others may take longer. But it's important to remember that your healing journey is your own, and won't be identical to anyone else's. Yet over time, the intensity of your grief will soften, and the emotional, mental, and physical symptoms will subside.
However, there are techniques to heal quicker from your grief.
How to deal with grief?
Dealing with grief is an overwhelming process but knowing the right strategies to start your healing journey will help:
Don't be afraid to let yourself feel.
Give yourself permission to experience a wide range of emotions that come with grief. Suppressing or avoiding emotions can hinder the healing process. Allow yourself to cry, be angry, or feel sadness as needed.
Seek support when you need it.
Surround yourself with understanding and supportive individuals who can listen to you without judgment. This can include family, friends, support groups, or a therapist. Talking about your feelings and memories can be cathartic and offer comfort.
Express yourself and your feelings in creative ways.
Engaging in creative outlets such as writing, painting, or playing music can be therapeutic. Expressing your emotions through art can help you process your grief and find a sense of release.
Prioritize self care.
Create daily routines that prioritize your well-being. Incorporate activities that bring you joy, such as going for walks, practicing mindfulness or meditation, listening to soothing music, or engaging in hobbies that make you feel peaceful.
Show yourself compassion.
Be gentle and patient with yourself as you navigate the healing process. Accept that healing takes time and that everyone grieves differently. Avoid self-judgment and practice self-compassion and self-care.
Release the grief physically.
Engage in gentle movements or stretches like somatic exercises that allow you to physically release the grief from where it's being stored in your body. Trust in your body's innate ability to heal, and remember that these exercises provide a safe and gentle outlet for your emotions.
How do you release grief physically?
Somatic exercises are a beneficial and gentle way to release your physical manifestations of grief.
As mentioned earlier, grief is physically stored and held in various parts of your body. And while healing techniques such as prioritizing self care and finding a creative outlet will aide your mental and emotional manifestations of grief, your physical manifestations will still be present. Which is why somatic exercises are a necessary addition to any grief healing journey.
How to start doing somatic exercises for grief pain?
To begin doing somatic exercises for grief pain, you'll want to follow a program designed by a professional.
We recommended our 5 Course Bundle | From Pain To Power for anyone trying to release the physical manifestations of grief.
Once you have a program to follow, make sure you commit to yourself, your body, and your journey to fully experience the benefits of what somatic exercises can do.
Here are a few more tips to get started:
- Find a quiet and comfortable space where you can focus on yourself and your healing journey without distractions.
- Start by taking a few moments to ground yourself and connect with your body and the present moment.
- Pay attention to any areas in your body where you might be holding tension or pain related to your grief.
- Listen to your body and honor its limits, moving in a way that feels comfortable and safe.
- Be sure to adjust accordingly or seek expert help if something feels off.
- Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you navigate through grief, allowing these exercises to support your healing process.
- And remember that no matter where you are on your grief healing journey, we're here to help and support you every step of the way. 💖