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How Grief Impacts Your Health

By Dr. Patty Gibson

Grief is a complicated and overwhelming emotion. It can come as a response to a major loss or change in your life and affect both your mental and physical health. Grief can manifest before, during, or after a life event and each person can experience grief differently.

Feelings of loss could result from any number of events such as a terminal illness, the death of a loved one, or losing a job. These feelings are usually a personal journey, but a universal loss isn’t uncommon. Universal loss is a loss shared by many and can follow events such as natural disasters, like the COVID-19 pandemic or a large wildfire.

The stages of grief

The stages of grief can last for weeks, months, or even years, but the pain can lessen over time.

In 1969, Swiss-American psychiatrist and researcher, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross defined the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model was developed to explain the different stages everyone experiences while grieving.

Not everyone experiences the stages in the same way and there is no timeline for the length of each period. Some research has found that the most intense symptoms of grief reach their worst during the six months after the loss or death of a loved one, but it’s not unusual for grief to last as long as several years. It’s important to remember that everyone mourns differently and there is no timeline for grief.

Uncomplicated or normal grief usually lasts within the first two years but more profound and intense grief, known as complicated grief, can last longer and be more draining.

Coping with loss

Grieving takes a physical toll on the body. Experiencing loss is an extreme stressor that can overwork your nervous system, cause a weakened immune system, and cause behavioral changes. It’s important to know the signs to look for them in yourself or in loved ones so you can take good care of yourselves.

Physical symptoms can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Exhaustion or trouble sleeping
  • Stomach or digestive problems
  • A weakened immune system
  • Pains and aches
  • Chest pains or feeling as though your heart is racing
  • Jaw clenching or muscle tension
  • Headaches, shaking, or dizziness

Studies show that grief can also increase inflammation in your body, which can worsen existing health problems and lead to new ones.

Grief can also take a toll on your mental or behavioral health, as well, especially during the depression stage.

These symptoms can include:

  • Feeling directionless, lost, or confused about your life
  • Losing hope about the future
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Struggling to make decisions

The journey through mourning can be more challenging for those who are caregivers. As caregivers for young children or aging parents, these individuals may not be able to put their daily responsibilities aside to focus on grieving. In these situations, it’s important for them to seek help from loved ones or a counselor to work through their grief and heal.

Recovering from loss

Since grieving can be a long process, it’s important to take care of your physical and mental well-being.

Whether it’s getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, or meditating, it’s important to do something. Discussing your loss, sharing your feelings or concerns, and making someone else aware of your grief can all help in the healing process. Those who are experiencing intense emotional turmoil or are struggling to resume their regular routine should consider consulting a therapist for help.

Getting help

Depression, anxiety, and stress are more common than many realize. It can be hard to ask for help when struggling with emotional health challenges and difficult to discuss, but doing so helps normalize the conversation and moves us closer to ending the stigma surrounding emotional health. If you are one of our members, we are here to provide you with behavioral health support through our whole-person approach to healthcare with access to therapy, providers, and other resources.

All Arkansans can find help through our Normalize the Conversation campaign, where you will find resources to help, regardless of your health insurance status.

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