The Physical Impact of Grief
Cristi Bundukamara, Ed. D, PMHNP (aka, Dr. B), founder and creator of the Mentally STRONG Method, discusses the physical aspect of grief and what grieving does to the body. Dr. B is an expert in mental health and grieving, publicly sharing her experience grieving the loss of her children to help others.
Emotional vs. Physical
We are familiar with at least some of the emotional impacts of grieving, including sadness, anger, and acceptance. Today we focus on the physical impact grief can have on your body. Dr. Mary Frances O’Connor’s extensive research on the physical aspect of grief is based on her meta-analysis of the research available. While we expect immediate physical reactions to grief, such as crying, hyperventilation, and other trauma/stress responses, O’Connor’s research provides insight into the long-term effects of grief.
Long-term Physical Effects of Grief
Initially, a person experiencing tremendous grief will have high cortisol and pro-inflammatory levels that may not go back to normal for a year or more. More intense grief, such as a parent losing a child, may see elevated cortisol and pro-inflammatory levels for many years. These increased levels can put the individual at a higher risk of disease and mortality. These elevated hormone levels can be detected and monitored in medical blood tests, including a complete blood count (CBC) and a comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP). Cortisol is a stress hormone that is elevated while a person is grieving. Pro-inflammatory markers are indications that the body is either about to begin or is in an inflammatory state, which can affect the thyroid, liver, pancreas, and other organs and systems. Not indicative of any specific disease, especially without other symptoms besides blood-detected levels, continued grief or stress can elevate these levels and put the body in greater danger of developing a disease.
When Grief Doesn’t Go Away
The impact of grief on our bodies and the increase in inflammation is why it is so important to process grief. While the feelings of loss may never entirely go away, the amount of stress associated with it will if a person works to move through their grief and come to acceptance. Grief is a prime example of how a person’s emotions can affect their health. Those suffering from prolonged grief disorder will have intense feelings of grief and stress for a year or more that interfere with their daily lives and increase their body’s susceptibility to disease through increased inflammation.
Controlled Grief and Mentally STRONG
Dr. B uses the term “controlled grief,” in which time is scheduled to process emotions and allow yourself the space to feel your loss while preserving your day-to-day. Using the Mentally STRONG Method to understand and map out our feelings, find new patterns of thought and healthy behaviors, and become more resilient. If you want to learn more about Mentally STRONG and Dr. B’s approach to mental wellness, please check out her books and workbooks on Amazon.