How does grief affect your body?

Grieving the loss of a loved one can take a physical toll. UCLA’s Dr. George Slavich describes how the body responds to grief and ways to cope.
Woman sitting on a bed with her face in a pillow

Losing a loved one can be an intensely stressful experience that can take a toll on one’s mental and physical health. The grieving process can cause everything from bodily pain and a weakened immune system to stomach upset and fatigue, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The root of these symptoms can be traced back to our evolutionary response to the loss of a social connection, according to George Slavich, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA

“As humans, we are strongly motivated to seek out social bonds that are warm, dependable, friendly and supportive,” says Dr. Slavich. “Losing someone close to us terminates that bond and the social and physical protection they provided, which historically could have put the body at an increased risk of physical danger.”

Going on high alert

When you lose someone you’ve been with for a long time, the body and brain go on high alert to protect you from potential dangers in the social environment. Your immune system ramps up and sends immune cells throughout the body to deal with possible physical wounding that might occur, thus helping to greatly accelerate wound healing and recovery.

The immune system developed this response to adapt to physical changes in the environment, creating a highly effective reaction to physical wounding, at least in the short term. 

At the same time, however, your immune system lowers its antiviral defense system, making your body more vulnerable to viral infections. If you’ve ever come down with a cold after a stressful time, you may have experienced this response, says Dr. Slavich. 

This results in heightened inflammation, which for some individuals, may last for a long period of time. Inflammation, in turn, can lead to a variety of psychological and behavioral symptoms, says Dr. Slavich, “including feelings of sickness, fatigue, loss of pleasure, and social and behavioral withdrawal.”

When these symptoms persist beyond 6 months after the loss, they can be a sign of prolonged grief. Prolonged grief can be debilitating for some and is associated with more serious health consequences, such as increased risk for cancer and early mortality.

Inflammation can also lead to several physical symptoms across the body following bereavement, including pain and changes in the gut microbiome.

To control inflammatory responses, your immune cells release small proteins called cytokines, which communicate with other immune cells to coordinate the body’s immune response. Cytokines are also involved in increasing your body’s sensitivity to pain, which may cause the physical pain some people feel while processing grief, as noted in a 2009 study

Chronic stress can induce changes to your gut microbiome and increase the permeability of your gut, causing bacteria normally contained in your gut to leak outside of your gastrointestinal tract. To contain the spread of the bacteria, your body may activate another inflammatory response. These changes are linked to the risk of developing more chronic inflammatory disorders and mental health problems, research says.

Ways to support your immune system

Supporting your immune system can help to contain these symptoms and promote good mental and physical health, says Dr. Slavich. 

“The beauty of the immune system is that it is sensitive to a lot of inputs.”

According to Dr. Slavich, there are five key categories of interventions that can regulate your immune response, including thinking styles, social relationships, diet, sleep and physical activity. 

Our thinking styles and ways of perceiving the world influence our body’s immune response to stress. After losing a loved one, we may find our thoughts constantly drifting to the past or the future. Practicing mindfulness meditation is one way of becoming aware of your thoughts, and grounding your awareness in the present, reducing overall psychological stress.

Regarding social relationships, when bereaved, people tend to stop reaching out to friends and family members. Fighting the urge to isolate is critical for maintaining a sense of belonging, purpose, and joy, and it is thus important to spend time with friends and family even when you do not feel like it.

When it comes to food, there are diets that can help reduce inflammation in the body. According to UCLA Health experts, an anti-inflammatory diet avoids processed foods and added sugars, prioritizing lean proteins, fruit, vegetables, healthy oils and leafy greens instead.

In terms of sleep, it may be difficult to fall or stay asleep as we ruminate over memories. Other times, a sense of purposelessness can make it difficult to wake up in the morning. However, “sleep is one of the strongest drivers of immune activity,” Dr. Slavich says, and “having a standard sleep schedule is really important for properly regulating your immune system.”

Sleep hygiene programs, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) are evidence-based effective treatments for managing sleep-related disturbances. 

Finally, staying physically active is critical for supporting brain and immune health, as “one of the most pro-inflammatory risk factors is high adipose tissue,” says Dr. Slavich. Exercising regularly can help to minimize this risk factor. Engaging in regular physical activity also helps to support overall cardiovascular, psychological, and physical health.

Each of these strategies can help promote resilience following interpersonal loss, Dr. Slavich says, “but the most important thing is to begin with the strategy that you know you’ll actually follow through with.”

It is also important to tell your healthcare provider about any significant grief you have experienced in the past, Dr. Slavich says. This will enable them to take your personal situation into consideration and to understand how your grief may be involved in any symptoms you may be experiencing.

Coming up with the best strategy for dealing with grief needs to be a team effort between you and your healthcare provider, Dr. Slavich says, but “if they don’t know what’s going on in your life, they won’t be able to help.”

Take the Next Step