Grief and loss cause measurable physical as well as psychological effects. Heartbreak is not just something that happens in songs. But can it be healed?
Unfortunately it’s not just death that brings loss. Separations bring the loss of the self you shared with that person. Dementia steals memories. Loss is not confined to human relationships either. You can grieve as intensely for the loss of a place, or an animal, or a time, as for a person.
In physical terms, grief can weaken your immune system, cause digestive problems, and disturb sleep. It might show up in the form of headaches, back and joint pains, limb heaviness or fatigue.
A grieving person’s weight can dramatically change, in either direction. Sometimes this will be self-correcting, but sometimes not.
What happens to the heart?
At moments of intense loss, separation and grief, pleasurable hormones like dopamine and oxytocin (associated with love) can be replaced in the body by the stress hormone, cortisol. This is great when you need to run away from a tiger or fight someone, but not so great if you’re trying to cope with normal life.
Too much cortisol for too long can lead to overwhelming anxiety, and feelings of nausea, outbreaks of acne or sudden weight changes.
More seriously, acute emotional stress associated with loss can cause the left ventricle of the heart to be temporarily paralysed, which can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of consciousness, nausea and vomiting.
Sounds like a broken heart? The medical name for it is Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy. Believe it or not, the name comes from the name for a Japanese fishing pot (used to catch octopus). The hearts of sufferers literally change shape, affecting the ability of the heart muscle to pump blood.
Most people recover from this form of cardiomyopathy within a couple of months, and no permanent damage, but while it’s happening, it can literally feel like you’re dying.
This is another serious condition with a strange name, thought to affect around 7 per cent of people who have experienced a severe loss of some kind. Rather than going through Kübler-Ross’s famous stages, people with complicated grief get stuck with the intense symptoms of grief for a prolonged period.
Sufferers report an inability to focus on anything other than the death or loss, intense feelings of anger and sadness, hopelessness, and an inability to accept the reality of what has happened.
Medical professionals may be needed to help those with complicated grief, especially when it comes on top of pre-existing or chronic conditions. Your GP is a great place to start.
What to do?
The boring answer is that good food, sleep and exercise can help heal a broken heart, like many other parts of your anatomy. Because we all live in bodies, at least for now, anything that helps the body also helps the less tangible parts of ourselves, and vice versa.
Things that calm down adrenaline and cortisol production will reduce your stress response. If there’s an activity that helped you relax in the past, do that.
Can you think of something that brings you pleasure, perhaps in nature? Ideally this will be something to help your mind, body and spirit come back into alignment.
Try to remember to eat, and make sure it’s vaguely healthy, even if you don’t feel like it at first. Excessive drugs, alcohol, caffeine and nicotine might help for a while, but will create more problems than they solve in the long term.
If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it. If the people in your inner circle are not being helpful, look beyond them. Try to be assertive about your needs. Find positive people who uplift you. Make plans for the future.
We have evolved with the ability to heal ourselves from extreme grief and loss, to an amazing extent, with enough time. If you can survive one day, the next day will be a little easier.