Pangs of grief may serve as body’s warning signal

Waco Tribune-Herald (TX) - Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Author: MICHAEL ATTAS Guest columnist

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She had lost her husband three years ago, and was having a hard time with the persistence of her grief.

She said over and over again, I know this is just a part of grieving that Im going through. Ill be fine soon I hope.

Or, My chest is really hurting you have no idea how bad Im feeling.

During major periods of grief or loss it seems as if our bodies are wired to respond in a certain way that we all have in common: Chest constriction. Dizziness. Sweating. Nausea. Palpitations. Neck and back pains. Headaches. Weakness. Unfortunately, many of these very symptoms are those of serious cardiac disease.

We all have our own ways of responding to existential pain and suffering. I think many initial clinical visits are a result of people not understanding their body and how it responds to stress.

Often these symptoms persist for longer than we would like and that is what ultimately leads some patients to seek medical attention.

I see some common misconceptions, particularly in light of research in the area of grief and its biologic effects.

First, we need to be aware that it is not only mourning that can trigger these things. Any devastating loss can trigger the same neuro-chemical and anatomic responses. It can be the loss of a meaningful relationship with a dear friend, divorce, loss of a job, or relocation because of a job transfer.

In a tangible way, any illness challenges us to work through the process of grieving.

We grieve the loss of our health, vigor and youth. Disease robs us of something we value and hold dearly.

We move from what one writer calls the Kingdom of Health into the Kingdom of Illness and our lives are forever altered. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined the five stages of grief denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

While these are valuable in understanding a normal journey that is a part of all humanity, they also seem to minimize the real physical things I know that I hear patients describe.

And it is all too easy to sort of pass these symptoms off as just psycho-somatic.

That simply doesnt reflect the reality of where people live and experience pain and loss. Its our bodies where we carry a lot of our pain, even when it is an emotional loss we are dealing with.

New brain imaging technology and biochemical analysis have discovered that grief and loss triggers release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and alters our biologic defense mechanisms. These are the very same substances that are now linked to heart attacks, strokes, and a multiplicity of other illnesses.

They may actually affect our immune system in a negative way, allowing cells to mutate and divide and set the anatomic stage for cancer.

So when our bodies begin to experience strange sensations after devastating loss, it should be seen as something much more profound than just our bodies experiencing psychological trauma.

It is a way of sending warning signals to our brain that something radical is going on in our bodies. It is a wake-up call of sorts.

I think that some individuals behave much like some people exposed to the addictive effects of cocaine. Neurologic receptors are activated, and, after the first exposure, addiction is a certainty.

In my clinical experience, grief and loss may trigger the same downward cycle of physiologic responses that lead to actual physical diseases. It leads not only to protracted grief that seems to never end, but to the very real possibility of new disease.

So how does one break the spiral of grief that is sustained and intertwined with our bodies?

While there is no one method for everyone, the first step is to recognize that it is not only our minds and hearts that become broken, but also our bodies.

A certain amount of very human things that go on in our bodies is perfectly normal, and by honoring and not denying those we take steps towards healing.

Those first steps of self-love and acceptance serve us well as we move through the one experience we all share as humans.

Dr. Michael Attas is a local physician, a medical humanities professor and an Episcopal priest. Email him at Michael_Attas@baylor.edu.

Section: accesswaco
Record Number: 15152541
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Pangs of grief may serve as body’s warning signal

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