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The biology of grief

The biology of grief

Medical science knows quite a bit about the psychology of grief. It knows surprisingly little about the biology of grief. And the number of people researching in this area is relatively small. It requires the straddling of two aspects – the psychology of grief and it’s biological changes. Grief is not a disease nor is it classified as a mental disorder so it’s hard to find funding streams. But there are some insights. 

The first weeks

Experts have a good idea of the path that grief takes through the mind when someone you love dies. But what about the rest of the body?

The stages of grief are generally recognised as starting with shock, when we feel numb or intensely sad or angry, guilty, anxious, forgetful, unable to concentrate, sometimes not able to sleep or eat (or indeed any combination of all of these).

And physically in these first weeks people typically display increased heart rates, higher blood pressure (and indeed are more likely to suffer heart attacks as a result).

Over their lifetimes, according to studies done mostly on bereaved spouses, they may have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, infections, cancer and chronic diseases like diabetes.

Short term recovery

With time, most people stabilize. These feelings ease, and it’s possible to accept loss and move forward. So we begin to learn how to deal with our emotions and feelings, to continue with our lives more or less and “function” in society.  However studies suggest that after six to 12 months, about 10% of bereaved people have not begun to function better. They get stuck in what’s called “complicated grief”.

The feelings of loss are debilitating and don’t improve even after time passes. It’s also called persistent complex bereavement disorder. Resumption of life doesn’t happen and those suffering remain preoccupied with loss and persistent yearning, and are socially withdrawn.

The physical aspects

Scientists know that grief is not only psychological, it’s also physical. They know that it causes the brain to send a cascade of stress hormones and other signals to the cardiovascular and immune systems that can ultimately change how those systems function.

Grief comes in many forms. But whatever the cause, the brain interprets grief as emotional trauma or PTSD. And handles it the same way. Grief is a normal protective process.

Traumatic loss is perceived as a threat to survival and defaults to protective survival and defence mechanisms, says Dr. Shulman

This response engages the fight or flight mechanism, which increases blood pressure and heart rate and releases specific hormones. Goal? Survival.

Dr. Mary Francis O’Connor, a psychologist at the University of Arizona. Her work and that of her peers has shown that a whole cascade of physiological changes unfold, not just over the short term, but also for years after a tragedy.

Under intense stress, the brain releases certain hormones that disseminate throughout the body. These hormones have a widespread impact on the heart and the immune system in general.

When there is elevated blood pressure there is a higher risk of blood clots due to an increase in clotting factors.


Due to chronic inflammation induced by stress, cardiovascular disease is far more common in people who experience the loss of a loved one. In one particular study, conducted at Rice University, researchers collected blood samples of bereaved people and found that for as long as three months after their loss, inflammatory markers were abnormally elevated. Inflammation also drives conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes, some auto-immune conditions and certain types of cancers.

Hormones such as insulin, cortisol, and epinephrine were measured over time and found in some cases to be chronically elevated.

And the brain itself?

In 2001, Dr. O’Conner first began imaging the grieving brain using MRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). On hearing words such as “funeral” or “loss” and seeing pictures of the person who died, certain areas of the brain lit up.

These were the same areas as when humans experience physical pain

study from the University of Iowa revealed a possible link between stress hormones and short-term memory loss in older adults. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, revealed that having elevated levels of cortisol — a natural hormone produced by the adrenal glands — can result in memory lapses as we grow older.

Reducing stress

With this research, it’s clear that stress during the grieving process, and dealing with loss, has short and long term impacts on health. Therefore trying to reduce that stress is worth investing time into.

There are the basic building blocks such as getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising.

These are 7 additional coping strategies which, incorporated into your life, can help to improve your health and longterm mindset amidst the stress of loss:

  • Face your feelings
  • Identify your stress triggers
  • Believe in yourself
  • Find a grief outlet
  • Practice gratitude
  • Focus on mindfulness
  • Live a healthy lifestyle

To find out more about any of these 7 strategies click here.