Grief can take just as tremendous a toll on our bodies as it does on our minds. The severity of its physical impact depends on the intensity of the grief, type of grief, our physical and mental health, and the amount of support we receive during bereavement.

Types of Grief

We feel and deal with grief in different ways based on many factors including age, background, beliefs, culture, and personality. [1] The following types of grief provide insight into the ways we grieve.

Normal Grief

Normal grief occurs when we continue with our regular routines even though we're dealing with painful emotions and physical symptoms. In time, our grief diminishes and we begin to feel better and more stable. [2]

Complicated Grief

Complicated grief develops when our grief doesn’t lessen over time and hinders or prevents us from leading our lives. It has the following symptoms:[3] 

·       Constant focus on the loved one’s death

·       Difficulty accepting the death

·       Episodes of rage

·       Intense and persistent feelings of bitterness, detachment, emptiness, hopelessness, or sorrow

·       Obsessive focus on reminders of the person who died or extreme avoidance of these reminders

·       Profound longing to see the person who passed away

·       Self-destructive behaviour

·       Suicidal thoughts or actions

Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief develops when we expect a loss to occur sometime in the future (e.g., when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness or is going to move far away).

Archaic Grief

Archaic grief arises when a current loss triggers unresolved grief from a past loss (e.g., losing a pet triggers the unresolved grief associated with losing a parent).

Inhibited Grief

Inhibited grief surfaces when we avoid facing a loss and focus on other things to distract from the loss. Although we repress our emotions, our bodies respond to the stress we’re feeling.

Collective Grief

Collective grief transpires when a community, group, or society experiences grief due to losses from a catastrophic event (e.g., a mass shooting, natural disaster, pandemic, terrorist attack, or war) or because of the death of a prominent public figure.[4]

Cumulative Grief

Cumulative grief develops when we experience multiple losses—typically within a short timeframe—so there isn’t time to grieve one loss before experiencing another one.[5]

Disenfranchised Grief

Disenfranchised grief is felt when others fail to recognise our loss or minimise its significance (such as the death of a co-worker, an ex-spouse, or a pet).[6] This lack of acceptance may cause us to suppress our grief. [7]

Impact of Grief on the Body

Grief can adversely affect every system in our bodies including the nervous, cardiovascular, immune, digestive, muscular, and skeletal systems.[8] People with severe health issues such as heart disease are more at risk from the ill effects of grief, but people in relatively good health can also experience distressing physical symptoms.

The Nervous System

Grief disrupts our brain activity. When the brain is malfunctioning, the signals it sends to the rest of our bodies are disrupted. For example, grief causes an imbalance between dopamine and serotonin, which work together to ensure that our bodies function properly and our moods are stable. It also affects the limbic system and pre-frontal cortex, which can hinder our ability to concentrate, multitask, remember things, and regulate emotions. The brain’s ability to regulate hormones may also be affected during the grieving process. Such hormonal changes can disrupt sleeping and eating patterns and cause anxiety.[9]

Cardiovascular System

Grief creates high levels of stress, which can raise the risk of heart disease, cause a faster heart rate, lead to takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or increase the chance of having a heart attack.

Increased risk of heart disease

Grief can cause our bodies to release higher amounts of cortisol (the stress hormone) into our bloodstreams for up to six months after the loss of a loved one. High levels of this hormone for a long period of time can increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

Faster heart rate

Grief can keep our pulse rates high for as many as six months. A faster heart rate (due to anxiety or cortisol) increases our risk of developing heart problems and can worsen existing heart conditions.[10]

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy causes the left ventricle in the heart to change shape and increase in size. This weakens cardiac muscles, so the heart doesn’t pump blood as it should. Physical or emotional distress from acute illness, bereavement, domestic abuse, financial worries, and other traumatic experiences can trigger this condition. Its primary symptoms are chest pain and shortness of breath. Other symptoms include nausea, palpitations, and vomiting. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy caused by grief is sometimes referred to as broken heart syndrome.[11]

Higher risk of heart attack

The risk of having a heart attack is higher than normal during the first days and weeks following the death of a loved one.[12] The stress that the loss causes can increase blood clotting, blood pressure, and heart rate, which increases the risk of having a heart attack. Disruptions in appetite and sleep and self-neglect (e.g., forgetting or refusing to take medication or missing doctor’s appointments) can also contribute to a heart attack.[13]

The Immune System

Some people produce fewer white blood cells when they’re grieving, which increases the risk of infection (e.g., getting more colds or developing pneumonia).[14] Also, grief is linked to inflammation, which occurs when the immune system responds to a potential threat and makes tissues swell. Inflammation contributes to arthritis, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and maybe even cancer.[15]

The Digestive System

Grief can cause us to lose our appetites, binge eat, or stop eating regularly. In addition, stress hormones can cause constipation, diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome, nausea, stomach cramps, and ulcers.[16]

The Muscular and Skeletal Systems

The excess stress hormones our bodies produce when we’re grieving can cause problems in the musculoskeletal system including back pain, headaches, joint pain, or severe stiffness. These symptoms can last for months.[17]

Nurturing the Body During Times of Grief

If you’re struggling with the physical symptoms of grief, eating healthy foods, staying active, getting enough sleep, and seeking support and care from others can help you cope with and alleviate your symptoms.

Eating Healthy Foods

A healthy diet will improve your well-being, decrease anxiety, and promote better sleep. Adopting the following eating habits will help you maintain a healthy diet:[18] 

·            Eat fruits and vegetables, healthy proteins such as beans and fish, and whole grains every day.

·            Have processed meat and foods high in fat, salt, and sugar including biscuits, cake, chocolate, and crisps occasionally.

·            Avoid sugary and caffeinated beverages and drink lots of water.

Staying Active

Even if you don’t feel up to it, try to get some exercise every day because it reduces stress, improves mood, and strengthens our bodies. The NHS recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.[19] [20] Moderate exercise includes brisk walking, dancing, hiking, pushing a lawnmower, and water aerobics. Vigorous exercise includes aerobics, jogging, riding a bike fast, skipping rope, and swimming fast.[21] Relaxing physical activities such as gardening, nature walks, tai chi, and yoga will also help you stay active.

Getting Adequate Sleep

Sleep can be elusive during times of grief. Taking measures to improve your sleep is important because adequate sleep can help alleviate your symptoms. Developing a sleep routine and relaxing before bedtime are two ways to promote better sleep. Developing a sleep routine

Two ways to establish a sleep routine are as follows: 

·            Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day

·            Getting into bed only when you feel ready to sleep—whether, for example, that’s 10:00 pm or 1:00 am—and getting up at the same time every morning.

Relaxing before bedtime

These four relaxation techniques can help you create calm in both your body and mind: 

·            Do something to decompress like listening to relaxing music, taking a bath, reading a novel, or colouring.

·            Do breathing exercises to relieve stress.

·            Tense and then relax your muscles. Start with your toes and gradually work up your body until you get to the top of your head.

·            Visualise a landscape or scene that has nice memories for you or that you’d find pleasant. 

It may be hard to improve your sleep. But don’t give up because it may take a while to find what works best for you. If you are unable to improve your sleep, then talking with a therapist, taking medication, or visiting a sleep clinic may help.[22] 

Seeking Help with Managing Your Grief

Support from others can help you cope with your grief and take care of yourself. It’s especially important to seek help if you’re having worrisome physical symptoms and/or experiencing any of the following difficulties:[23] 

·            Persistent thoughts about your loved one and/or the circumstances surrounding his/her death that interfere with daily living

·            An intense and continuing yearning for your loved one a year or more after the death

·            Intrusive memories or flashbacks related to the death

·            Extreme avoidance of talking about the person who passed away

·            Severe detachment from others

·            Excessive self-blame

·            Reliance on drugs or alcohol to cope with your grief

Sources of Support

People you trust, support groups, support organisations, therapists, and general practitioners are important sources of support during times of grief.

Trusted others

Sharing your feelings with people you trust such as family members, friends, or colleagues can help you feel less alone, validated, and cared about. Knowing that others truly care about your well-being can help you face each day even if this feels hard to do right now.[24]

Support groups

Sometimes you may feel like family and friends don’t fully understand what you’re going through. A grief support group provides a place for you to connect with others who’re grieving the loss of loved ones. You could share information you’re comfortable with sharing—such as your feelings, thoughts, experiences, memories of your loved one, or coping strategies—or just listen to others.[25]

Support organisations

Support organisations offer email, face-to-face, online, and telephone support for anyone dealing with the loss of a loved one or for specific types of bereavement (e.g., loss of a child, parent, or spouse).[26]

Therapists and counsellors

Therapists and counsellors help people cope with their problems including the following:[27] 

·            Anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions

·            Difficult life events such as bereavement, job loss, and retirement

·            Long-term physical health conditions

·            Painful emotions including anger, confusion, guilt, low self-esteem, and sadness

·            Relationship issues

·            Traumatic experiences

Grief counsellors

Grief counsellors help people manage and work through their grief in the following ways: [28] 

·            Understand the grieving process

·            Identify and express their feelings about the loss

·            Explore ways of coping

·            Cope with anniversaries and birthdays

·            Move towards acceptance

General practitioners (GPs)

GPs are concerned with patients’ overall health, so they integrate the physical, psychological and social elements of care. They determine risk factors, identify abnormal reactions to grief, and discuss available care options with patients. [29]  

You Can Manage the Physical Symptoms of Grief

Losing a loved one can take a tremendous toll on our bodies. If you’re having alarming or persistent physical symptoms, please make an appointment with your GP. Working with a therapist or counsellor can help you (a) decrease the stress that’s causing or exacerbating your physical health problems, (b) work through your grief, and (c) address mental health issues.   At Life Counsel, we provide a safe and welcoming place for you to talk about what you’re going through and find solutions to your problems.

[1] Dee Marques, “The Eight Types of Grief Explained,”, accessed May 23, 2021,

[2] Marques, “The Eight Types.”

[3] Angela Morrow, “Differences Between Normal and Complicated Grief,” Very Well Health, accessed May 23, 2021,

[4] “Grief & Loss Handout,” Foundation for Change, accessed May 23, 2021,

[5] Elizz Authors, “Types of Grief and Loss,” Elizz, accessed May 23, 2021,

[6] Elizz Authors, “Types of Grief.”

[7] “Grief & Loss Handout.”

[8] Marilyn A. Mendoza, “When Grief Gets Physical: Our Bodies and Mourning,” Psychology Today, accessed May 27, 2021.

[9] Brittany Anas, “Grief Affects Your Mind and Body — Here’s How,” Simplemost, accessed May 23, 2021, 

[10] “How Grief Can Affect Your Health,” WebMD, accessed May 25, 2021,[

11] “Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy,” British Heart Foundation, accessed May 25, 2021,

[12] “How Grief Can Affect.”

[13] Michelle Roberts, “Bereavement Raises Heart Attack Risk, Says Study,” BBC News, accessed May 25, 2021,

[14] “Six Physical Symptoms of Grief,” Forever Missed, accessed May 25, 2021,

[15] “How Grief Can Affect.”

[16] “How Grief Can Affect.”

[17] “Six Physical Symptoms.”

[18] “What is a healthy diet?” Cancer Research UK, accessed May 26, 2021,

[19] “Exercise,” NHS, accessed May 26, 2021,

[20] “Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Adults,” NHS, accessed May 26, 2021,

[21] “Exercise.”

[22] “How to Cope with Sleep Problems,” Mind, accessed May 26, 2021,

[23] “Dealing with Grief,” British Heart Foundation, accessed May 26, 2021,

[24] “Bereavement,” North West Boroughs Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, accessed May 26, 2021,

[25] “Support Groups,” The Loss Foundation, accessed May 27, 2021,

[26] “Support and Self Care,” Mind, accessed May 26, 2021,

[27] “Talking Therapy and Counselling,” Mind, accessed May 27, 2021,

[28] “Support and Self Care.”

[29] “General Practice (GP),” NHS, accessed May 27, 2021,

Stathi Anthopoulos

Stathi Anthopoulos

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