Alt-Health: Grief Affects Our Health

We all know how much grief hurts us emotionally, but we may not realize how damaging it can be to our health. At least one lethal form of grief, the “widowhood effect,” has been well documented by science. Studies show that the likelihood of death can increase from 40% to 90% in the three months following the death of a spouse, and there is a 15% risk of mortality in the months to follow. The risk for grief-related damage is not just limited to spouses  – every year in the US, 4% of children under the age of 15 experience the loss of a parent through death; that number has grown exponentially since advent of the opioid crisis. Grief risk factors are also going to affect people who are experiencing loss from divorce or catastrophic illness. The phenomena is real … but doctors don’t fully understand the mechanisms by which it occurs.

One common factor in most grief equations is isolation … and loneliness. The loss of a partner or parent not only leaves an empty space in our hearts, it can leave us alone in life. We never realize until a companion is gone how many things we depended on them for. These feelings of desolation and loss often lead to depression … and depression is not just a symptom of the mind; it can cause a myriad of physical problems as well. If chronic disease is present, chances are that the condition will accelerate. The risk of heart attack increases 21-fold in the 24 hours following the death of a spouse, and this danger decreases only gradually in the following months. Those who grieve are more prone to accidents and they tend to lapse in self-care … medical treatments are neglected, carefully timed prescription pills are forgotten. Many older spouses had come to rely on their partners to help manage their health; some are unable to take care of themselves. It is a very stressful position to find oneself in, and stress is a whole world of woe unto itself.

When we experience stress from a traumatic event, our bodies pump adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream. If this release is massive enough, it can bring about a condition called Takotsubo’s cardiomyopathy. In layman’s terms: an anxiety attack. This may sound like nothing more than an emotional hissy fit, but in most cases, the symptoms are identical to a heart attack – chest pain, inability to breathe and collapse. The difference is that most Takotsubo’s patients eventually recover from their symptoms, but some have actually died. It is a very negative example of mind over matter. The long-term effects of stress are not as dramatic as Takotsubo, but they have a very corrosive and cumulative effect. A substantial number of human illnesses are exacerbated or even caused by constant stress on the body.

It’s no surprise that our immune systems also take a hit when our hearts do. Grief can suppress our natural resistance and make us more susceptible to infections and bacterial invasions. It is ironic that at the very moment our systems are weakened, we are often forced into dealing with more people than usual – concerned family and friends initially flock and shake hands, hug us, unintentionally leave every germ and cootie they have all over our skin and clothes. It is a recipe for respiratory infections. Those with chronic illness are even more at risk.

It is a very natural reaction in grief to neglect personal health, eat badly and move less. The fatigue that results from grief makes us want to sit down (or lie down), and never get up again. Some of us never do. That’s why, in this case, it’s important to make an effort to act against your natural instincts.

There’s a reason that physical therapists make you move even when it hurts. You can curse and call them sadists all you want, but the fact is – if you don’t move now, those damaged muscles and ligaments may never move again. Grief is like being hit by a truck. It knocks the stuffing right out of you. For a while, you really can’t get up. But then, there’s the moment when you know you have to. That’s when the real work begins – building a life all over again.

There’s a few things that really help. One of the most important is exercise. The simple act of walking means that you are moving. You can’t change your emotions. You can’t push yourself out of your sense of loss. But you can develop a simple exercise routine and put yourself in motion. It’s something you can do.

A healthy diet is more important than you know. Your body is exhausted and challenged … it needs good food, and proper fuel. If you can’t bring yourself to eat, make smoothies with delicious fruits and dairy or soy protein. Drink plenty of water. And your friends mean well, but I’d avoid the cookies, pies and butter-crusted casseroles they’ve been pressing on you. The Egyptians may have had a better idea when they  buried the funeral meats with the dead.

Most of all, breathe. Take a deep breath in, let a long breath out. Repeat, over and over and over again. Do not stop. Just keep breathing. You’ll feel better some day. You really will.

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