What is the Stress of Grief Doing to Me?


By Larry M Barber, LPC, CT

We know that grief is a stressor for those struggling after the death of a significant person in their lives.  Dealing with the stresses of loss and grief can wear us down-physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and socially.  But what is stress and how serious can it be for the mourner?

Stress is a person’s physical and emotional response to change. Stress allows us to respond and adapt to our environment.  The time taken to adapt to the change determines whether the stress is:

  • Acute stress – calls for an immediate reaction to change that is judge to be threatening (stressor). Adjusting to the change takes only a short time.

  • Chronic stress – results from changes that are not addressed. This lack of action leaves the body in a state of heightened awareness or tension.

If all stressors were acute, then stress would not be such a critical issue in modern society. People would simply respond and adjust to immediate threats, and then they would return to normal.

Unfortunately, most stressors in modern society do not allow people to respond and adjust quickly. Grief is an on-going stressor because grief is process which takes time.  You can't rush grief and you can't escape the stressors of loss.

Grieving the death of a person, dealing with daily job stress, ongoing financial pressures, and dysfunctional long-term relationships at home or at work usually cause chronic stress for the people experiencing them.   Living in chronic stress, the person’s body lives in a heightened state of awareness and tension, which can lead to:

  • Cardiovascular events such as heart attack or stroke

  • A suppressed immune system

  • Slow wound-healing

  • Herpes outbreak

  • Irritable bowel syndrome attacks

  • Decreased sex drive and impotency

  • Asthma attacks

  • Ulcers

  • Blood pressure elevations

  • Increased chronic pain

  • Psychosomatic complaints

What causes stress?

  • Life events such as divorce, loss of a loved one, birth of a child, moving, getting a new job, financial setbacks or windfalls.

  • Daily events such as traffic congestion, long commute, working overtime, deadlines, personal conflicts, car trouble, job stress, household chores, childcare.

  • Environmental stressors such as excessive noise, weather extremes.

  • Physical stressors such as physical injury, chronic pain, hunger, thirst, lack of sleep.

  • Genetic predisposition

  • Inability to adapt; lack of coping skills

  • Age – both young and old experience more stress.

  • Personality and perspective

  • Insomnia

  • What are the symptoms of stress?

  • Changes in sleeping patterns (sleeping too little or too much)

  • Change in eating (overeating or not eating enough)

  • Nightmares

  • Decreased interest in sex; impotency

  • Teeth grinding

  • Irritability or impatience

  • Crying over minor incidents

  • Dreading going to work

  • Headaches or stomach aches

  • Increased muscular tension in such places as the jaw, neck, back or shoulders

  • Digestive problems

  • Shallow breathing or sighing

  • Cold or sweaty palms

Remember grief and on-going stress can take it's toll on you causing you to have a weakened immune system.  This opens mourners, especially during the first year of grief, to being susceptible to all sorts of illnesses and physical disorders.  That's why it is a good idea to have a full physical check-up within the first six months of grief and to have regularly scheduled medical check-ups after that. Be aware of how grief and stress are affecting you and your daily performance at home, work or school.

Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise”  available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Christianbook.com.

The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunca Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” on Amazon.com.