By Bunmi Sofola
From the moment my mother passed away at 76, in her own bed, after succumbing to a cruel disease that caused her years of suffering, I had been poleaxed with what I later came to understand were the lesser- known physical symptoms of grief,” said Ajoke, a 52-year old proprietress of a thriving primary and secondary school. She continued: “Heart palpitations, a constant burn inside my head began to present itself in a very real physical way.
“As the weeks went by, I watched the changes in my hair with a sense of detachment as grief crashed in. Not only did the grey strands double, then triple in number, but the hair itself seemed to be thinning and my scalp was beginning to show through. I am going grey and bald, I thought,. with disinterest, as I delved into the stash of snacks in the house – an increased appetite and unwillingness to curb it’s another side-effect, it seemed, of losing someone you love.
“Normally, I am a person who likes to take care of myself. I am not overly groomed, but I have been careful to disguise the ageing process. Yet I had no desire to correct the physical changes that were occurring after my mother’s death. My grey, thinning hair seemed a perfect metaphor for my loss of youth. It told me what I already knew; I was no longer a girl or even young. Having nursed my mother through the worst of times, I had at once become a grown-up, a wise woman. And it was only months later that I started to notice physical improvements. But there was still my greying hair. So I threw myself at the capable hands of my hairdresser – a small but significant nod to the urge to look after myself physically. While my internal scars remain, my hair is a war wound, and wounds sometimes need a helping hand to heal”.
What does grief really do to your body? According to experts, damages include:
Hair changes: Grief is a severe emotional stress and can cause hair to thin or grey. “Grief can trigger an excessive release of hormones known as prolactin and melatonin in your hair that will disturb the normal growth cycle and cause more shedding than usual,” explains Dr. Bessam Forjo, medical director of Trichlogists. ‘’The same hormones can also affect the melanin, the pigment in your hair, and cause it to lose pigment so that it turns grey.” He likens the process to the excessive shedding after birth and says: “Again, in that instance, hormones cause a disruption of the normal growth cycle and a woman may lose over 1,000 hairs in a day compared to the usual 100. The good news is that once the sharp edge of the grief passes, the growth cycle resumes and the hair will grow back, usually about six to eight months after you first noticed the changes, although the loss of pigment will be permanent.”
Weight Loss/Gain: How grief affects appetite depends on the individual. “People deal with periods of sadness in different ways,” says nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed. “I have worked with clients who aren’t interested in food or eating at all and those who turn to food for comfort and even use it as a punishment or distraction. If you are programmed from a young age that food is a way to help you feel better then this may get slightly out of control and lead to overeating and weight gain.” The key, says Charlotte, is to try to concentrate on eating nutrient – rich foods in smaller amounts. Fluids are also essential. Aim for six to eight glasses a day to maintain hydration. Water, tea and milk all count towards your fluid intake.
Can’t Sleep: Sleep disturbances are one of the most common physical manifestations of grief. “We hear about it a lot,” says Helen Butlin, manager of the Cruse Bereavement Care Helpline. “Some people have nightmares or wake up and can’t get back to sleep again, raking over memories or feeling panicky about life without the person they’ve lost.” Helen believes it’s important to catch sleep when you can and take naps in the day if possible.
“It’s essential to have as good sleep hygiene as possible – so keeping your bedroom quiet and dark, having a bath beforehand if that relaxes you and not looking at any screens before bed. There’s no time limit to grief and sometimes you’ll feel OK for a bit and be able to sleep and then you’ll feel worse again and that is totally normal.
Reduced Immunity: It is common for people who are grieving to find themselves more susceptible to illness and colds. “Grief can cause an excessive production of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortising – which will impact on your white cell count reducing its efficiency in the fight against infections,” says Dr. Imran Raft, Chair Research at the Royal College of Practitioners. Doctors will take your grief into account when assessing any illness but should not ignore the possibility that anything else might be wrong too.
Itchy Skin: It’s not unusual to have skin flare-ups after suffering a loss. “There is correlations and stress,” says dermatologist, Dr. John Ashworth. If you get psoriasis for the first time which presents as flaky crusty patches of skin or utricaria – a raised itchy rash – within a month, say, of a stressful event, then causation would seem reasonable. Grief can also make a current skin condition worse. If you already have eczema or are prone to cold sores, then it’s very possible you could see an exacerbation of these at a time when you’re stressed or lacking sleep,” concludes Dr.. Ashworth, who reiterates the importance of being vigilant with taking skin medication when you’re recently bereaved.
Palpitations! These are common in periods of stress. ‘’The increase of adrenaline and cortisol in your body will cause your blood pressure to rise and may lead to chest pain or your heart pumping irregularly,” explains Dr. Rafi. Occasionally, a doctor will prescribe beta blockers – which decrease activity of the heart by locking the actions of hormones such as adrenaline- on a short-term basis to help reduce blood pressure and palpitations. This is normally done as a last resort, after encouraging patients to try relaxation techniques first. Helen Butlin from Cruse recommends the following ‘grounding technique’ for anxiety and heart palpitations. “When your heart’s pumping irregularly or you’re feeling panicky, put your feet on the floor and practise deep breathing in and out to help feel in the moment and to connect you with your physical surroundings. This helps to reduce anxiety and calm you down.”
Fatigue: Sometimes, after the loss of a loved one, there can be an overwhelming lethargy. “When you feel a loss of the meaning of life, it can feel difficult to rustle up any motivation says Helen Butlin. “We encourage people to take small, positive steps. Go for a short walk, text someone, make phone call. Any little thing is a step towards feeling like you have a sense of purpose again. Be sure to look after yourself too. Eat well, get outside for some fresh air and even watch a TV show that you always enjoyed. Doing the things you always liked to do before may slowly reconnect you with joy, re-ignite your motivation and give you more energy.”