Written by Sally Douglas and Imogen Carn from the Good Mourning podcast. A big thanks to Good Mourning for collaborating with Bare on this article.
It’s no secret that grief can be incredibly painful emotionally. But often there’s another element that can catch you off guard, and that’s how much havoc grief plays with your body. Whether you’re anticipating a loss or grieving a death, it can feel utterly exhausting, and on some days, hard to find any energy to do what feels like the smallest of tasks.
Feeling like grief has changed you physically is common. However, you may not realise that the two are connected. We certainly didn’t understand how challenging times, like illness and loss, can flip the script on how your body functions. It came as a real shock after our mums died, as we dragged ourselves from the bed to the sofa, wondering why we felt like we’d just completed the world’s hardest assault course.
It was a relief to find out that, actually, there’s a valid reason for the exhaustion, insomnia, anxiety, changes in appetite, aches and pains many of us feel.
So, what’s going on, and why does grief feel so incredibly physical? The answer is stress. Chronic stress can have a long-lasting impact on your brain function, sleep, your respiratory system, digestive system, immune system, nervous system, heart function, your libido and overall health and wellbeing. When you’re feeling extreme stress, your amygdala (your brain’s fear centre) acts as an alarm system. It screams that you’re in danger, sending an SOS to your nervous system, which gets to work by sending in a cascade of stress hormones, called cortisol and adrenaline.
And a big way that this can show up is in your cognitive function. You might feel extra tired, foggy and forgetful. When we spoke to world-renowned neurologist and author of Healing Your Brain After Loss, Dr Lisa Shulman, for the Good Mourning podcast, she explained there's a scientific reason that backs up your feeling exhausted and forgetful while you’re navigating challenging times. Chronic stress, she explained, activates neuroplasticity and it also weakens nerve growth, resulting in memory impairment and increased fear. These weakened neural connections impair memory, executive function, attention, word fluency, and speed of information processing. Which means that if stress, anxiety, and fear are constantly firing away in your brain, it becomes its go-to setting.
So, what can help manage the physical impacts of grief?
We’ve found that these things can be so beneficial when you’re feeling exhausted and stressed. If you’re concerned about your physical symptoms, we always recommend seeking medical advice from a professional.
Exercise. Yep, it sounds obvious, but often when we’re facing difficult times we might hide under the duvet. But exercise is key to balancing out stress hormones thanks to promoting feel-good endorphins. It’s really key, and only needs to be 20-30 minutes a day. A short brisk walk, or gentle yoga session, can do wonders. Try to be consistent, too.
Which leads us onto the next thing that can really help your body when you’re under times of great stress: yoga. Yoga encourages you to be in the present moment and focus on breath and movement, which is great for grounding yourself when you're feeling stressed or in a heightened state of anxiety. It’s also a great way to gently relieve tension. Sign us up, please!
Breathwork is also a good way to centre and calm yourself and release stress from the body. Practising a few slow, deep breaths can have a calming effect on your central nervous system and allows you to feel more relaxed.
A good sleep routine can also help restore your energy levels. Try and limit screen time 30 minutes before bed (that includes any doom scrolling on social media!), and make sure that your bedroom is cool and dark. It can help to do a short wind down meditation to relax, too.
Finally, exercising self-compassion is so important. Give yourself loads of grace – grief, and tough times, take their toll. Prioritise yourself and, if you can, take time to rest.
By Sally Douglas and Imogen Carn, Good Mourning Podcast.
About Good Mourning.
Sal and Im’s mums died unexpectedly when theywere in their early thirties, only months apart. Theystruggled to find grief support that approached thetopic in a relatable way. So, they created the Good Mourning Podcast as a space to talk candidly aboutthe realities of loss.
Find out more about Good Mourning at www.goodmourning.com.au.