Everyone experiences loss at some point, but despite how universal grief is, we don’t spend much time talking about all the ways it changes us. While basic ideas about the forms grief takes, such as the five stages model, are well known, many people experiencing the death of a loved one may be surprised by just how deep the effects of grief can ripple through our brains, bodies, and lives.
Grief’s Impact on Your Brain
A grieving brain has increased activity in the areas that process pain. That, of course, is expected. What’s surprising about grief’s impact on the brain is that, for some people, the pain is accompanied by activity in the brain’s reward-processing centers. This is most often seen with complicated grief, a type of prolonged grief that interferes with everyday life. Scientists surmise that this activity represents an addiction to yearning for the lost loved one.
Grief may also affect your brain through increased cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that becomes elevated in times of stress, and if it remains high — like during extended grief — it can lead to depression and anxiety. It does this by shrinking the parts of your brain that regulate emotions and memories, and growing areas that control emotional responses like pleasure and fear. Even if you don’t develop depression or anxiety, you may notice the effects of cortisol in a reduced inability to concentrate and poor memory function.
Grief’s Impact on Your Body
Grief affects more than your brain; it can impact your physical health as well. Beyond the symptoms of disrupted sleep patterns, changes in appetite, and chronic fatigue, grief can actually weaken your immune system, increase your blood pressure, and intensify physical pain. So when you’re grieving, you’re actually more susceptible to getting sick, and existing illnesses may be worsened. Grieving may also increase the risk of heart attack, especially in elderly people.
How to Cope
So how do you grieve and retain your health? While heightened stress is inevitable after you’ve lost someone close, there are things you can do to mitigate its effects on your mind and body.
- You may find eating difficult when you’re grieving, but it’s important to take care of your body to reduce the health impacts of grief. Stress may drive you to eat fatty and sugary foods, but junk food can actually worsen your body’s stress response. Keep a supply of convenient, healthy foods so that you can eat well even when you’re not up for cooking.
- Sleep, but not too much. Grief and depression can simultaneously make it difficult to sleep and make you want to sleep all of the time. Practice good sleep hygiene to facilitate sounder sleep, and try listening to guided imagery recordings if negative thoughts are keeping you awake. But don’t let yourself sleep all day — establish a morning routine that gives you motivation to get out of bed and start your day.
- Don’t dwell on reminders. There’s nothing wrong with reminiscing over photographs and memories of your loved one, but if you find yourself becoming preoccupied with thinking of the deceased or unable to part with trivial belongings, you probably need to step back.
- Exercise is an excellent way to relieve tension, reduce stress, and sleep better. Virtually any form of exercise, from gentle yoga to marathon running, will burn off excess cortisol and release mood-boosting endorphins.
- Find Support. Whether you turn to friends who can lend an ear, a religious community, or a grief support group, it’s important to cultivate a social network when you’re dealing with the effects of grief. In fact, social support is correlated with decreased cortisol levels, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of anxiety and depression.
If you feel unable to cope despite your best efforts, connect with a mental health professional. Grief can have lasting impacts on your mental and physical health, and it’s important to have every tool available to grieve your loss in the healthiest way possible.
About the Author: With SpiritFinder, Ms. Scott offers a forum where those living with anxiety and depression can discuss their experiences.