More often than not, people use words such as “heartache”, “hurt”, or “pain” to describe an emotional trauma, and being affected by grief makes people experience concrete physical sensations such as a churning stomach, a racing heart, shaking, flashbacks, and hypersensitivity to noise. However, there is no uniform set of symptoms, as people react differently to grief and loss.
Scientists have been familiar for some time with the idea that grief can manifest itself physiologically as well, reads an article published recently on BBC News. Scientists from the University of California have shown that the part of the brain (the anterior cingulate cortex) that deals with physical pain also processes emotional pain.
Chest symptoms are quite recurring, and they are commonly known as “broken heart syndrome”, termed stressed, or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. This usually follows “significant emotional or physical stress”, which suddenly awakens the heart muscle and changes the shape of one of the heart’s chambers. It is believed that this syndrome affects 100 people per million each year. A study conducted at Imperial College shows that it might serve as a mechanism for protecting the heart from the adrenaline that accompanies shock and grief.
A huge loss can also leave people more vulnerable to infection, especially among older people, who can suffer from reduced function of neutrophils, which is the most abundant type of white blood cell that fights off rapidly dividing bacteria such as pneumonia. This could in some way explain all the cases of older couples who die within a short amount of time of each other.
Anna Phillips, professor of behavioral medicine at the University of Birmingham, says: “People say you die of a broken heart. What we’d say is they are dying of the effect of these factors on their immune system.”
Another study shows that people who have suffered from grief in the past year produce fewer antibodies in response to a vaccine. However, symptoms can also be extremely unexpected and shock people who start to worry that there is something wrong with them. Other symptoms include: feeling tired, not sleeping well, headaches, changes to the appetite and menstrual cycle.