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The Physical Toll of Grief

Grief Can Worsen Arthritis Symptoms and Add to the Struggle

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Updated May 04, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

At some point in your life, you will experience a significant loss. The consequence of that loss will be profound grief. It's inevitable. It's part of life.

Most people acknowledge that there is an emotional toll connected with grief. For many people, there is also a significant physical toll.

Moving Through Grief

When you are smacked down by grief, you are instantaneously faced with a new reality. There's almost no time for the overwhelming sadness you feel. Despite your loss, your life goes on. You don't get to push a pause button and put living on hold. While you are grieving, you have to cope, work, live, and adjust.

There were five stages of grief named by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. These stages were used initially to describe a person's reaction upon facing death, but came to be looked at more generally as a pattern of response to other losses and grief.

  • Denial and Isolation (you deny what has happened and withdraw)
  • Anger (you are angry at what has happened or what is responsible for your loss)
  • Bargaining (you try to change what has happened)
  • Depression (you feel sadness and disbelief)
  • Acceptance (you accept the reality of your loss)

Grief and Stress Cause the Body to Rebel

The five stages dredge up strong feelings. There is an intensity associated with the feelings that can be very stressful. Physical problems may begin to develop once the powerful stress response has been set in motion. Many of the physical responses are unexpected.

Grief, and the stress reaction that it can induce, can cause a variety of physiological responses. These might include symptoms as diverse as sleep disruption, exhaustion, palpitations, shortness of breath, headaches, high blood pressure, appetite loss, stomachaches, hair loss, irritability, and the disruption of your menstrual cycle.

Ongoing stress impacts a variety of hormonal and immune responses that are involved in fighting off infections. As such, you may find you are developing more colds or infections during your time of grief or stress. Pre-existing chronic conditions, like arthritis, can flare (a period of more active symptoms). It's not your imagination -- there are physiological reasons for all of it.

As we begin to handle our grief, the physical toll lessens. But handling grief does not come easy and will not take the same course for everyone. Massage, exercise, hiking through nature, and journaling are healthy activities that may help with the grief process. A grief counselor is necessary for some people. It's important to find what works for you. Your body will slowly respond to the positive approach you take to grief and stress.

The Bottom Line

Grief is a normal reaction and consequence of any type of loss. You should expect that there will be an emotional toll as well as a physical toll.

Sources:

Coping With Grief. Univeristy of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine. Department of Family Medicine. August 2008. By Charlene Luchterhand, MSSW. http://www.fammed.wisc.edu/sites/default/files//webfm-uploads/documents/outreach/im/module_grief_clinician.pdf

Handling Grief. Deathwise.org. Accessed 4/11/11. https://www.deathwise.org/how-we-help/get-emotional-support/handling-grief/

Stress of different types increases the proinflammatory load in rheumatoid arthritis. Arthritis Research and Therapy. Straub R et al. June 17, 2009. http://arthritis-research.com/content/11/3/114

The Physical and Emotional Effects of Grief. By Brook Noel. Accessed 4/11/11. http://www.funeralplan.com/griefsupport/griefsteps.html

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