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
- Spending time in nature
- Doing activities that make you happy
- Visualization techniques for relaxation
- Mild exercise
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.