Shiela didn’t look like herself anymore, she looked at least ten years older than she actually was, with baggy eyes and ashy skin. She was grieving her husband whom she had just lost a few days ago. She wasn’t able to do the simplest things or fend for herself, all she wanted to was to sleep. She felt exhausted and so tired, even though she did not get out of bed all day.
Ed and his girlfriend of ten years had broken up in an explosive argument. Ed had never experienced heartbreak before, and he felt that he was going to die of the pain. He found himself going into his shell as he refused to talk to his close friends and family. All he could do was watch the TV all day and wasn’t able to concentrate on anything. He felt like he was running on a low battery, with all of his energy drained.
Grieving can have a deceptively physical effect on anyone experiencing it. When we think of loss, we associate it mainly with emotional distress, which is at the forefront of grieving, but the grieving process can also take a physical toll.
Physical symptoms of grief can cause pain and discomfort, breathing, and, significantly, fatigue. Low energy levels become a hurdle many people can overcome while processing their loss and regaining normalcy.
Grief can cause exhaustion through multiple processes in the body, including poor appetite, poor quality of sleep, and increased stress. Exhaustion during grief can also result from changing and more demanding responsibilities as a result of a loss.
With so much to be worked through mentally and emotionally, fighting with the body is the last struggle anyone seeks while grieving. Fatigue makes it much harder to resume normal activities, maintain self-care, and think clearly. It is essential to understand how fatigue can interfere with the grieving process to manage its effects.
Luckily, by recognizing the issue of exhaustion during grief, there are ways to work back towards normal energy levels.
Why is Grief So Exhausting?
How grief can have such an impact on energy levels is not at all that shocking when you consider the physical effects of grief. Our brains have the job of taking in information and assessing how to best react, which is then used to guide our behaviors and physical processes.
For example, the brain sees a cliff. It directs the body not to walk too close by sending feelings of anxiety throughout the body, possibly even tightening muscles and inducing that sickness you feel when you look down from a high drop-off.
Grief, however, is complex.
Emotional distress like grief is far more difficult for our brain to work through than ‘stay away from the edge of a cliff.’ Our physical responses can become a bit dysregulated and lead to issues.
Grief, specifically, can lead to biological reactions in appetite, sleep, and the body’s stress response that strain energy.
Changes in Appetite
While grieving, some people may find less interest in eating. They often manage to eat very little or even forget to eat throughout the day. This abrupt and drastic decrease in calories can leave the body feeling more tired and weak.
Food is an important energy source, so less energy from food means less energy to perform physical activity. A less obvious way decreased appetite can lead to fatigue is through the body’s adaptive reaction to conserve energy. With minor and irregular energy from food coming in and limited energy from stored fat, the body will use feelings of fatigue and weakness to promote less movement and activity.
This preserves limited energy stores and means the fewer calories you consume can be prioritized to fuel essential processes.
On the other hand, some people take to food in seeking comfort from the pain that they might be experiencing. Comfort foods trigger dopamine, which helps you feel better by providing pleasure. Sometimes, even just thinking about food can release dopamine. Sometimes, the food itself may be associated with positive memories and bring on a sense of nostalgia, which is why people may take to that when they’re dealing with grief.
In some cases, food can provide you with certainty and help you feel that you’re still able to influence some aspect of your life, giving you the sense of control you may need to feel when faced with an overwhelming loss.
Changes in Sleep Patterns
Late and even sleepless nights during the grieving process are difficult emotionally and can take a heavy toll physically. Nagging thoughts and uncomfortable emotions make it hard to quiet the mind and relax the body enough to fall asleep.
Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep has a clear connection to energy levels. Lack of sleep can cause brain fog, poor concentration, difficulty making decisions, and adverse effects on mood.
A lot of people report how racing thoughts and the never-ending “what-ifs” keep them up at night, contributing to their exhaustion.
However, not all people experience sleepless nights. Some find themselves oversleeping and maybe in bed more than 12 hours a day. Contrary to popular belief, this too can contribute to exhaustion as research suggests. People take to sleeping too much as the dream world can act as a sort of sweet escape from the harsh reality of their recent loss. With spending more time sleeping, coming to terms with this new reality can be delayed, if not avoided.
Dealing With Grief is Stressful
Our bodies are not made to deal with chronic stress.
Stress is held on throughout the body in sneaky ways. Often, we do not consciously think about the physical forms we manifest anxiety, but they use energy. Think of physical signs of distress such as crying, tense muscles, restlessness or inability to sit still, and so on. These reactions are displayed or felt physically and so use the body’s limited and precious energy to carry out.
Physical stress reactions are programmed into our bodies to help us react optimally in dangerous situations (backing up from that cliff).
Grief, however, induces stress throughout everyday life over an extended time. The energy used by stress responses adds up and can leave you feeling like you have less energy than you need for daily activities and functioning.
How New Responsibilities and Roles Add to the Exhaustion of Grief
When someone close to you and involved in your life passes, it can mean that some of the things they did for you, you now have to make up for yourself.
For example, if someone in your household passes away, you may now have to manage chores and household tasks previously divided in half. Whatever the case, the loss of someone who had an active role in your life often means taking on some more responsibility or independence.
In addition to navigating your normal activities in the face of grief, learning to do and manage more can be very demanding. New responsibilities or tasks can certainly lead to or add to the exhaustion you feel while grieving. Every time that you may do something that they were responsible for, you may be reminded of them, which can be stressful for your body and cause emotional upset.
This stress can add to the exhaustion that you’re already feeling.
Ways to Deal with Exhaustion While Grieving
If you have found yourself riddled with exhaustion, there are ways to combat its harmful effects. Exhaustion can be hard to beat, as it stifles motivation, but the momentum from the correct positive change (or changes) can be quickly felt and fiercely influential.
This section of the article will go over some ways in which you can manage exhaustion. Take a look:
Eat a healthy, nourishing diet regularly.
Supplying your body with enough food and nutrient-rich, healthy foods can improve energy levels and overall feelings of wellness. You need to provide your body with the right fuel so that you’re nourished from the inside out.
As we mentioned earlier, some people lose their appetite when they’re grieving, while others take to overindulging themselves with unhealthy food. It’s important to ensure you’re eating a well-balanced and healthy diet so that your body gets all the nutrients it needs during this tough time in life.
It’s often easy for people to forget to eat when they’re dealing with so much already. Making healthy meals for yourself can be the greatest act of self-care during this time. This mindful activity can also help you feel a sense of normalcy during the challenging period.
Practice good sleep hygiene to promote quality sleep.
By finding a sleep routine that works for you, you can promote quality, restful sleep that recharges your body as it is meant to. Start with a consistent, relaxing routine. You can speak to a therapist or doctor for help winding down each night if you need guidance.
You may notice a change in your sleeping patterns when you’re grieving–some people sleep too much, while others aren’t able to fall asleep at all. This can further contribute to the exhaustion associated with grief.
Get some form of movement every day.
Moving your body can have an energy and mood-boosting effect that perks you up. Movement can be as simple as going for a walk or working through a stretching routine. Exercise helps release dopamine, which can help elevate your mood while also helping you channel your emotions into something productive.
This is an excellent way to work through feelings of rage, uncertainty, sadness, and anger. Physical activity can also help take your mind off of things for a short period of time.
Now and then, step outside your house- even just a short walk.
Stepping outside where you can shift how you feel and reset the mind and body. If it is an option where you live, many people find time outside in fresh air to be a pick me up. If you need to be indoors, a quick trip, like to get a coffee or tea, can do the trick too!
Nature has its ways of bringing peace and spending time outdoors can help you feel better in more ways than you can imagine.
Pick up a meditation practice.
Learning to quiet and clear your mind can be a huge relief, even for a short time each day. These practices often have positive effects on thought patterns and perspectives outside of planned sessions.
Mindfulness can help you learn how to control your thoughts so that you don’t find yourself stuck in a spiral of the infinite “what-ifs” and “if-onlys.” This practice can help you feel that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself and bring about a feeling of peace, helping you come to terms with the recent loss you’ve experienced.
Set realistic expectations for yourself.
In your period of grief, you may not be able to keep up with everything you did previously, and that is ok. Holding on to unnecessary pressure for yourself can lead to overextending energy. Prioritize your energy during this difficult time. You can reincorporate what you cut out as your energy levels go back to normal.
Is Fatigue Always a Symptom of Grief?
Fatigue is a common symptom of grief but by no means a universal symptom. Everyone who experiences grief does so differently.
If you are experiencing fatigue as a symptom of grief, know you are not alone. If you are grieving and have not experienced fatigue as a symptom, that does not discredit your experience and feelings.
Grief is complex and highly individual. There are many potential symptoms that grieving can induce. Fatigue is one of many symptoms that may or may not make up your grieving process.
Seek Professional Help if You Need It
Grief is something that we must all face at some point in our lives. If you feel that you’re unable to cope, seeking professional help can be beneficial for you. A licensed counselor or therapist can help you understand and explore all of the emotions you’re feeling in a safe space, while also providing you with healthy tools and coping mechanisms to navigate this tough time in your life.
It may seem impossible, but it’s important to know that this, too, shall pass.