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Grief is the process of mindfully contextualizing loss or tragedy. It’s about accepting an unchangeable truth, and acknowledging how it will (and already is) affecting you as you are now. Whether it be for a loved one, a favorite pet, a comforting place, a traumatic event, or even a season of life, the act of grieving and coming to grips with loss is often an extremely draining undertaking that can take you through a vast range of feelings and behaviors. Naturally, such a prolonged, intense event will affect you beyond just mentally and emotionally. Below are six ways grief affects the human body. 

It is important to note that individual differences in psychological response to grieving, such as depression or anxiety, influence the experienced physical symptoms. Everybody endures loss and trauma differently. Some may experience all of these symptoms, while others none. Regardless, grief is a process that will look differently depending on context.

1. Increased Inflammation and Depleted Immune System

People who are grieving may be more prone to illnesses, as their bodies may be weakened by the strain of sorrow, frustration, and stress. Grieving people may find it more difficult to recover from illnesses and are more prone to illnesses like the common cold. 

Several studies show bereaved people demonstrating higher levels of systemic inflammation, maladaptive immune cell gene expression, and lower antibody response to vaccinations compared to nonbereaved individuals. 

Furthermore, older people specifically may also have a harder time overcoming the symptoms of immunosuppression as grief and trauma boost the stress hormone cortisol throughout the body, which compromises the immune system.

2. Brain Fog, Fatigue, and Mood Changes

When a person experiences a traumatic event that begins the grieving process, fight-or-flight hormones are released. This causes the brain to begin to rewire some of its nerve connections and create new pathways, which may greatly hinder brain function.

Many cognitive effects of grief interfere with the brain’s ability to think clearly, maintain attention, communicate properly, process information, make wise decisions, and problem solve. Trouble with memory and envisioning the future has also been shown to be affected in those who are grieving. 

The exhausting aspects of grief can also cause a rollercoaster of emotions ranging from sadness, depression, anger, numbness, overwhelm, apathy, etc. It’s probably not a mood swing; it’s just grief.

3. Disturbances in Sleep Patterns

Many studies highlight the correlation between grief and sleep disturbance. Over 90% of individuals experiencing grief reported sleep problems, with 46% they have trouble sleeping at least three times per week.

Insomnia is even linked to bereavement. One study found that people suffering a loss had a significantly higher rate of insomnia than their non-grieving peers, with more than one in five bereaved individuals experiencing insomnia.

4. Physical Pain or Discomfort

Psychological pain is common in bereaved people, but grief can also cause physical pain. Researchers studying the connections between psychological and physical pain found similarities in some areas of the brain, tying the body’s physical, mental, and emotional experiences together due to grief. 

One study found considerable somatic symptoms during the earliest months of bereavement, though these symptoms lessened after the first year. Physical health before the moment of loss as well as the suddenness of the loss were factors in the intensity of physical symptoms present.

People may experience muscle pain, headaches, backaches, and other physical symptoms. Due to the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, grief can also raise the risk of chest pain as cortisol causes blood vessels to constrict and slow or stop blood flow. 

5. Digestive Disturbances and Weight Changes

Eating can become a major challenge as some people will simply lose their appetite, while others may overeat in an effort to escape the pain of their grief. Bereavement inspires these symptoms and others, such as nausea and irritable bowel syndrome. 

The digestive tract can be sensitive to times of intense stress. Cortisol again causes many of these disturbances in the body. The central nervous system and gut are very sensitive to social-environmental factors, resulting in altered gastrointestinal function.

Accumulating evidence from clinical studies suggests a strong link between stress-induced disturbances along the gut microbiota-immune-brain axis and chronic inflammatory disorders, such as allergies, autoimmunity, and inflammatory gastrointestinal disorders, and mental health problems including anxiety and depression.

6. Cardiovascular Concerns

Broken heart syndrome is a real temporary heart condition triggered by stress, such as when a loved one dies. Grief-related stress can put you at a higher risk of high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, chest pains, or even heart attack.

Grief is also linked to various physical heart-related disorders, such as cardiovascular disease and hypertension. The wear and tear on the body due to increased stress really weighs down the heart, both physically and metaphorically.


Since grief does not have a set timeline, it is difficult to predict how long these symptoms may last. Grief is an intensely personal experience and can vary greatly from person to person, hence why context matters. Everyone experiences grief and losses differently, and it is important to remember to take it one day at a time. 

Being aware of both the physical and emotional effects of grief can help us to understand and cope with our own experiences better, and to be more understanding and compassionate to others who are also in pain. As we mindfully journey through grief in context, healing happens. 

If you or someone you know is struggling to cope with grief, please seek medical care. Local therapists and counselors can offer mental health care that meets you where you are. Including context into the healing process is so important for a full recovery. 

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