Unresolved Grief can make you Sick

As someone who struggled with complicated grief after the deaths of my husband and son, during a time that was made even more difficult due to several personal medical crises, 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.

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. Unresolved grief can make you sick.

I’m sure you are not expecting an anatomy and physiology tutorial in an article about grief, but if you are struggling with grief, you will want to hear what is happening in your body and how it has the potential to impact your future.

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 the 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
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

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 the PNS can be activated voluntarily, IF, you are aware that you are chronically engaging your SNS.

By becoming aware 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
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Spending time in nature
  • Doing activities that make you happy
  • Visualization techniques for relaxation
  • Mild exercise

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After losing my husband and son within two years of each other, and dealing with melanoma and a brain aneurysm (among other health problems), I was in a constant state of emotional overload.  I went 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.

Years ago, I began having autoimmune symptoms. After a flare up in January of this year, I have been bedridden, and in pain, for a good part of the last four months. I spent the last week at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester going through numerous tests and seeing several specialists to finally discover that, due to my chronic stress (according to the specialists), I have developed a severe case of fibromyalgia.  My Central Nervous System, after years of SNS overload, has transitioned to being in a constant state of defense, believing that every and any stimulation is an assault to my body. This has resulted in chronic muscle pain, peripheral neuropathy, and extreme fatigue.

I wish I’d had someone who could have made me understand the consequences that my prolonged grief and highly stressful life was going to 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, and 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 state of your emotions and your body, and be aware that you also have choices to make.


When you are stuck in 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.

The choice you do have is whether you are willing and able to do the work that is required to get you through this terrible pain. This work is not for the faint of heart. Surviving the death of someone you love, and finding your way to a place where you can find some joy in life again, is possibly the most challenging thing you will ever do, but it can be done. Healing doesn’t necessarily look the way you think it will look. You will never truly get over your loss. You will still have days you are anchored to your pain, no matter how hard you try to let go. Honestly, you will never be the same, and to get to a place of healing you have to accept that both you, and your life, will be different.

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 again.

While you are doing the work to heal your broken heart, make sure you are engaging your parasympathetic nervous system on a regular basis. Not only will this possibly help your healing, but this will ensure that when you are ready to live life again, your body will be healthy, and able to support you.

Being aware of the connection between your emotional and your physical states can help pave the way to healing. Grief is a process that must be worked through and that cannot be avoided. Our emotions and pain must be recognized and honored to eventually be healed. But, if your grief is prolonged, and you are struggling, please be aware of the impact this has on your physical health and take steps to reduce the possibility of long term health problems.

Your future self will thank you.

Hugs,

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Rhonda

 

 

 

 

 

12 thoughts on “Unresolved Grief can make you Sick

  1. Cindy

    Because of my grief I triggered Graves disease. ..losing my Dad and my significant other of 26 years has taken its toll on my body. I try the relaxation techniques. Seem to help some.

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    1. Rhonda O'Neill

      Cindy, I’ve heard from many of my doctors that grief/chronic stress can trigger an entire cascade of autoimmune disorders. Unfortunately, once they are activated it is hard to get them back under control. Who knew grief could have such long term physical impact on us? Sending you a big hug.

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  2. Suzanne Versnel

    Rhonda thank you for sharing your health issues. We are all in so much pain with high levels of stress. I do not want to list all of mine and possibly sound like I am not aware of others pain. I would like to share that I am in complicated grief and my body is failing me. My knees, feet, back, hips. It is difficult to often walk and do basic chores. I am taking your above list to heart and wondering through your experience if I should also see my doctor.

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    1. Rhonda O'Neill

      Suzanne, I would definitely recommend you take your symptoms to your doctor. I will caution you however that it has taken me eight years to finally get a diagnosis and treatment started for the fibromyalgia. But, I also believe that had I done some of these stress relieving methods to lower my chronic stress, maybe I would have never gotten this sick. Do everything you can to try to take moments throughout the day to calm your body to try to counter act the negative effects of unresolved grief. Take good care of yourself. Big hug.

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  3. Sandy Richler

    Thank you so much for your article.I recently lost both my parents as well as my husband.I always feel on edge and tense like I’m ready for more bad news.I have stiffness and pain in all my muscles,but not the same one’s every day.I don’t think we understand fully the profound impact our emotions have on our bodies

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  4. Tracey Roberts

    I LOST MY SON HE WAS 23. FATHER AND DAD OF TOO YOUNG BOYS IT’S BEEN 8 MONTHS BUT ,6 YEARS OF HIS HE GONA LIVE THUR HIS DRUG USE .I ALREADY HAVE FIBROMYALGIA I REALLY DON’T CARE IF I LIVE OR DIE ,THIS WAS ALWAYS MY LOOK ON LIFE. I HAVE LOST MY JOY AND HAPPINESS. SOME DAYS ARE BETTER THEN OTHERS ,BUT IT’S A HELL OF A FIGHT .

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  5. Buckley

    Thank you for sharing this… I have been bouncing from one specialist to another. I have developed autoimmune diseases & GI diseases… I am 39 & feel like I am dying. It all started after losing my mom, bestfriend, daughter, a handfull of childhood friends, my home, & caring for my Husband with stage 4 Melanoma. I knew the grief/stress didn’t help, but never knew how much it impacted me:( Thank you!! I needed this so bad today!!

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  6. Sherry wolf

    It took me four years to find out I had fibromyalgia. I was treated for Rhumatoid arthritis and I stayed in pain and exhaustion for all that time. It it hard to come up with that diagnosis but with the correct medication, I was fine in a week. After I was diagnosed I looked it up and it says that fibromyalgia offer begins from a traumatic event. Well… I found my precious 22 year old daughter dead. She had just graduated from the university of Michigan and starting her life in New York City. She was not cursed with any addiction problems but when she got to New York this guy latched onto her because she was beautiful and could get into any club or party. He was a musician that was into drugs and gave her some cocaine that killed her. She was a normal kid experimenting and it ended her life and mine. I had no support from anyone and I isolated. I was so grief stricken and traumatized that after time my body gave out. And I suffered in pain for four years. Life is not fair

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  7. Marcy

    Thank you for sharing! Been there and will deal with the long term effects of the stress my mothers death and even more so the caregiving had on my body. Hard to say that one can be “aware” of the stress a traumatic experience can have on oneself, especially because anxiety and depression will most likely play a roll and then all bets are off. My personal experience is surround yourself with those who love you so they can help recognize failure to mourn without mental or physical repercussions. Sorry for you loss!

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  8. Lisa

    I lost my husband 5/15/15 and are unborn baby boy on 8/1/15. Since then i have been told i have anxiety, ptsd, sleep disorder, and deep depression, cervical cancer for the 3 time and i leaking heart value.I have no energy life isn’t the same not even close. Im glad i came across this it may help. Thank you for sharing so we all have more information about what some of us maybe going through.

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  9. Gail Morin Kil Albers

    Thank you for sharing your difficult journey. I lost my closest friend (my only sister) to alcoholism 3 1/2 years ago and am still immobilized by grief. I stood by her bedside for four days helplessly watching her die. I am no longer the person I used to be, and want that person back! I gained 35 pounds, have developed high blood pressure and alopecia. I feel so helpless and so hopeless. I’m going to print off your article and try some of the techniques you suggest. Hoping for some improvement…

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