The Truth About The Physical Effects of Heartbreak

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This past week we all got to witness one of the most powerful examples of the mind body connection when Carrie Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, died less than 36 hours after daughter’s death. Honestly, this wasn’t surprising to me.

As a bereaved mom I can attest to the extreme and real physical feeling of heartbreak I experienced in the days following the death my son. In October 2010, my heart literally felt as if it were being shredded inside my chest; I was short of breath and it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest.

The physical pain of grief is real and palpable.

As an exercise physiologist who used to work in cardiac rehab, if a patient had presented to me with these same symptoms, I would have immediately had them admitted to the cardiac unit. The dangerous connection between grief and the risk of an adverse heart event is real. A study published in 2012 by the American Heart Association stated:

"Heart attack risks are extremely high for the bereaved in the days and weeks after losing a loved one. The first day after a loved one died, heart attack risk was 21 times higher than normal, which declined progressively over the first month. Friends and family of a bereaved person should watch for heart attack signs and help him or her maintain their medication regimen."

It was almost a year after my son Brandon died when I realized one of the biggest disconnects in the grieving paradigm is a lack of attention to how powerful the emotional connection is to our physical body. The use—or misuse—of our bodies in the healing process can become a powerful tool for healing, but first we need to recognize the value of our physical health as it pertains to healing an emotional wound.

Our bodies are the vessels that hold the energy of our most powerful emotions.

It’s common for people to associate mental health issues like depression and sadness with the loss of a loved one, but it’s unreasonable to consider the emotional impact of grief without acknowledging that the body is also affected by the process of grieving. There are acute and tragic situations like how Debbie Reynolds is supposedly quoted saying, “I want to be with Carrie” shortly before she died, but the more common effects of grief on our health manifests itself in a variety of physical symptoms for months and sometimes years after the death of a loved one.

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The death of a loved often leads to weight gain or other physical health issues.

In my work as a wellness coach and yogi for the bereaved, I’ve seen frequent diagnosis of hypertension, auto-immune disease (like fibromyalgia), type II diabetes, and sleep apnea in the months after the death of a loved one. Probably the most frequent adverse health effect I see is weight gain.

We don’t live in a culture that grieves well or has beautiful rituals or traditions around grief and healing. It seems the best we can do is show up with food. When my son died, well-meaning friends and family filled my fridge with weeks worth of food. The irony is that in those first days, you don't even have the energy to eat—but our culture loves to feed the emotions we don’t know what to do with.

Honoring and taking care of our bodies—just as we do our emotions—should be a priority in the early days and weeks of grief. The mind and the body are made of energy, and the physical body is one of the most profound ways to manipulate and balance your emotional energy.

Be aware of how your body is responding to emotional stress.

In the book, “The Body Keeps Score” the author shares this insight of the importance of being aware of how our bodies are responding to emotional stress.

"… people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past."

The simplest way to access this self-awareness and begin to heal is through movement. The example I often use when speaking on grief and health is that of a cement mixer truck. If the tank is moving and the cement is churning, it’s pliable and you can work with it. But as soon as the tank stops, the cement hardens. In other words the energy has stopped flowing and it’s going to be a lot more difficult to move through the grief and figure out what to do with it.

Use movement to heal your body.

When we move our bodies—even in the simplest of ways like taking a few deep breaths—we become aware of where and how our emotions are getting stuck in our body. Breath work is available to most all of us and can become a powerful access point to identify how our body is doing under the pressure of such powerful emotions.

The death of Carrie and her mother are certainly tragic, and I think it’s a beautiful opportunity for us to re-examine the necessity of including mindful body work in healing from a death of a loved one.

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