How the Stress of Grief Will Literally Kill You

Heart breaks are a real thing. #WellnessWednesdays

The Uvalde, Texas massacre in May where 19 students and 2 teachers, perished, persists in the news and on our minds. We will continue to pray for the families of the slain victims as they go through the stages of their grief.  Not regularly mentioned in the news, however, is the fact that there were really 22 victims who died as a result of this massacre.

You see, the husband of one of the teachers massacred suffered a heart attack when told of his wife’s death.  He also died.  The cause was reported as heart attack from a “broken heart.”  Yes.  He literally died from a “broken heart”, a heart attack, caused by the extreme stress and grief associated with the death of his wife.

“Broken Heart Syndrome” is a real medical diagnosis that occurs more frequently than once believed.  In the medical literature it is also called Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy. In Takotsubo cardiomyopathy any extreme emotional stress causes one of the heart’s chambers to balloon out. This can trigger symptoms similar to those of a heart attack which can include chest pain and shortness of breath. If an individual already has partial blockages in the arteries of the heart, this ballooning can decrease the blood flow to their heart muscles causing a heart attack and possibly death, though this is very rare.

Lethal Sadness

The elderly are vulnerable to stress induced health complications. You may have known someone who died shortly after their spouse of many years died. This occurs even if the surviving spouse lives a relatively healthy life.

A 2012 study published in the journal Circulation found that an individual’s risk of having a heart attack increased 21 times in the day immediately following the death of a loved one. The risk is still six times as high throughout the following week.  The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Internal Medicine) confirms this risk for a heart attack or stroke after losing a partner remains elevated for as long as a month.

To help us unpack this phenomenon, let us look at grief itself first.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ 1969 book On Death and Dying has changed how we look at individuals who grieve the loss of a loved one. Because of her research and publications the five stages of grief model became famous. We use it extensively today especially in end of life or Hospice care.  And, these days most people know the five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. During any of these first four stages the body can, because of the stress of grief, go through adverse changes that can inevitably lead to damage of vital organs.

Death of Stress

Stress itself can directly cause physical changes in our bodies. Studies show that stress lowers the body’s resistance to infections, and its defenses are significantly altered.  In addition, stress causes the release of a hormone called cortisol. This hormone causes changes in our body including increasing the blood pressure and increasing the need for sugar.  This is because under stress our brains require 12 percent more energy, you know, in preparation for “fight or flight.”  With the increase in blood pressure, decreased resistance to fight infection and increased blood glucose circulating in the brain, an individual may at risk for damage to their vital organs.

The Bible’s Job, under the extreme stress and grief from losing all his children in death on the same day, captures the magnitude of the feeling:

 

“Oh that my grief were throughly weighed,

and my calamity laid in the balances together!

For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea:

therefore my words are swallowed up” (Job 6:2,3).

 

The conclusion of the matter is that the heaviness of grief can weigh on our health.  As we have seen above, stressful situations can cause  physical change in our bodies that can in some rare cases cause death.

So how do we counteract this “heaviness” that Job is speaking of? How do we manage the stress that grief will eventually bring to all of us? I will end with six recommendations to aid you when faced with any traumatic situation but especially the death of a loved one:

Mind Your Heart

  • Accept that you are in a time of stress.  Give yourself time to mourn. Realize that grief is a process that eventually leads to acceptance of the situation.
  • Spend time with friends and family.  Speak to them about your hurting.  Remember that they too may be hurting.
  • Take care of yourself. Increase the antioxidants and anti inflammatory vitamins in your diet. Do not neglect to take the medications prescribed by your health provider.
  • Return to your hobbies.  Try to keep up with your daily schedule.  If needed, consider joining a support group.
  • If necessary, speak to a professional counselor to assist you in dealing with the grief you are experiencing.
  • Most importantly, Pray. God is probably carrying you at this time. He has already sent The Comforter. He can and will be with you during this time of grief.

 

 

                 

                 

 

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