When you are struggling with grief, it can feel as if you have no choices. You didn’t choose the loss of your loved one. You didn’t choose the pain of having to go on living without them. You didn’t choose the isolation and loneliness that are an undeniable part of the grief path. This is not the life you chose. However, this is the reality of the life you have.
I struggled with complicated grief for many years after the deaths of my husband and son, while also suffering with several medical crises. I was in a constant state of emotional and physical overload, going from one crisis to another, usually in a state of disbelief and shock. Every time I started to heal another crisis entered my life, demanding that I stop the healing process and put the fire out. After years of struggling with serious health complications, I finally understand the impact that the chronic stress of grief was having on my body.
I want to offer up a word of caution to other grievers who remain in the acute stages of grief long after the death of their loved one. As noted in this article by The New York Times, prolonged grief can make you sick, and if left unchecked puts you at high risk of many physical and mental heath complications.
I wish I’d had someone who could have helped me understand the consequences that my grief, and increased stress levels, would have on my health. It really never felt like I had a choice in the matter. But, in hindsight I can see that I did have a choice about some of the stressful events I allowed into my life and how I dealt with them. I am now finally ready to make the changes in my life that I should have made years ago to improve my health. I encourage you to be aware of the impact that your emotions have on your body. The emotional stress of prolonged grief can cause physical and physiological changes in your body, which if left unresolved, predisposes you to an increased risk of physical illness.
The Effect of Stress on the Body
The body is regulated by the Autonomic Nervous System, which involves the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The SNS activates the body’s resources in fight mode, while the (PNS) helps the body to rest and recover. The SNS and the PNS are meant to balance each other out, and the body is meant to spend the majority of its time in the PNS. Typically, all of this is done involuntarily by the body in response to stress. Most of the time we are not even aware of whether our SNS or our PNS is activated.
‘When you are in the acute stages of grief the emotions you are experiencing engage your SNS in the body’s “fight-or-flight” response. When in fight mode, your body reacts as if you are preparing to confront an imminent threat to your safety.’
According to Mayo Clinic,
When the SNS is activated from a stressful event your brain sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, the SNS prompts your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, increasing your heart rate, elevating your blood pressure and your respiratory rate. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.
The SNS works well when responding to an acute crisis but when it is continually activated in chronic stress situations, such as prolonged grief, the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all of your body’s processes.
This chronic cascade of chemicals puts you at increased risk for numerous health problems, and also has the potential to shorten your life span.
Some of the health problems resulting from chronic SNS stimulation are:
Anxiety and depression
Heart disease and stroke
Immune system dysfunction
Headaches and migraines
Memory and concentration impairment
How to Counteract the Negative Effects of Stress
The good news is that your PNS encourages the relaxation and the recovery of your body systems which will take you out of fight mode. According to Harvard Medical School, the PNS acts as a brake mechanism in opposition to the SNS, dampening the stress response and converting the body’s system back to one of homeostasis.
It is important to know that your PNS can be activated voluntarily, if, you are aware that you are chronically engaging your SNS.
By understanding that you have some say about whether your body is in a fight-or-flight state, you have the potential to preserve your future health. Here are a few ways you can activate your PNS:
Deep breathing and biofeedback mechanisms
Spending time in nature
Doing activities that make you happy
Visualization techniques for relaxation
Learning to Live With Loss
Regular activation of the PNS can help to prevent long term health complications while you are working to heal your broken heart. Healing your heart is one of the hardest things you will ever do. Healing doesn’t mean that you will forget your loved one and move on. That will never happen. But, you can get to a point in your life where the pain of the loss does not define you anymore. Where your days are not engulfed by sorrow and confusion. Where you love yourself enough to say, I am no longer willing to live with this overwhelming pain, or the destruction it is bringing to my life. By choosing to honor yourself, your lost loved one, and your grief, you can eventually learn to embrace life with some happiness again.
It is important to be aware of the connection between your emotional and your physical states. If your grief is prolonged, and you are struggling, please remember the impact this can have on your physical health and take steps to reduce the possibility of long term health problems; ensuring that when you are ready to live life again, your body will be healthy, and able to support you.
Your future self will thank you.
Hugs to all,
You can find my book, The Other Side of Complicated Grief here.
My community grief page on Facebook can be found here.
Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grievedifferently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at email@example.com.