An Integrated Approach to Young Adult Mental Health Rehab

How to Identify the Symptoms of Grief

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If you’re feeling agitated, irritable, and down on yourself, it might not be for the reasons you think. Instead, you might be experiencing symptoms of grief.

Sadness isn’t the only emotion associated with grief. And grief doesn’t look or feel the same for everyone. It’s a complicated emotion that comes in many forms and manifests in many different ways.

You might have heard of the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But the way we move through these stages and experience the symptoms is unique to each person. There is no “right” way to grieve.

Furthermore, the symptoms of grief are not just mental and emotional. The effects of grief are also physical and spiritual. So if you’re getting more stomachaches and headaches lately, or having a hard time connecting to a sense of meaning and purpose, these might be signs of grief.

Why Young Adults Might Be Grieving Right Now

It’s not just the big losses that prompt grief, but also the small yet meaningful ones. During this time, young adults may be experiencing grief as a result of one or more of the following:

  • Loss of a job
  • Not being able to return to college
  • Having to live at home with parents instead of establishing an independent life
  • Being unable to freely date and socialize
  • Grieving the loss of “normal life,” as it was before the pandemic
  • Feeling as if they have lost the future they imagined for themselves
  • Losing faith in government and leaders
  • The state of the world, including social injustice issues and economic hardship
  • And, of course, the biggest loss of all—the loss of a loved one.

This range of experiences may catalyze different types of grief. True, the loss of a job doesn’t compare to the loss of a loved one. However, discounting or minimizing these “smaller” losses isn’t helpful. Grieving them is valid and understandable.

Symptoms of Grief

If they don’t acknowledge the loss they have suffered, young adults might not recognize the signs of grief. Hence, young adults dealing with grief may identify it as anger, irritation, self-judgment, or depression.

While sadness is the most common sign of grief, there are many other emotions that are associated with grieving, such as:

  • Feelings of disbelief; the sense that this isn’t really happening
  • Hopelessness, despair
  • Apathy: a feeling that nothing matters
  • Agitation and impatience
  • A sense of powerlessness and inability to control things
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Thoughts of self-harm or other self-destructive thoughts
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Anger; blaming others
  • Nightmares
  • Guilt, regret, self-blame
  • Questioning religious beliefs
  • Uncertainty and lack of clarity
  • Wondering why and how to go on
  • Feeling lonely and isolated.

These emotions are natural to feel right now. Along with collective trauma as a result of the pandemic, we are also experiencing a kind of collective grief. In some ways, this affects young adults more than other generations. During a time when they are developmentally ready to spread their wings, meet new people, and experience new things, they are facing restrictions and limitations in almost every area of life.

Physical Symptoms of Grief

Because the mind and body are connected, painful emotions like grief create issues not just mentally, but also physically. When the nervous system is under stress, every other system in the body feels the effects—including the immune system, respiratory system, and circulatory system.

Therefore, effects of grief on the body include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain
  • More frequent colds or other infections
  • Reduced appetite and weight changes
  • Fatigue and problems sleeping
  • Weakness
  • Muscle tension
  • Chest pain and pounding heart.

Doctors have even identified a condition called “broken heart syndrome,” formally known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It occurs when one of the heart’s chambers expands as a result of extreme emotional distress, creating symptoms that mimic a heart attack. While this condition is rarely fatal, one study found that on the day following the death of a loved one, the risk of having an actual heart attack increased by 21 times.

Types of Grief

Experts say that the five stages of grief, originally identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, don’t necessarily go in order. Rather than climbing them like a ladder, we may circle back through the stages over time. Typically, people going through grief experience waves of powerful emotion, followed by periods of recovery in which they find moments of relief and humor.

Experts say that the five stages of grief, originally identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, don’t necessarily go in order. Rather than climbing them like a ladder, we may circle back through the stages over time. Typically, people going through grief experience waves of powerful emotion, followed by periods of recovery in which they find moments of relief and humor.

Know the Facts

Experts say that the five stages of grief, originally identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, don’t necessarily go in order. Rather than climbing them like a ladder, we may circle back through the stages over time.

However, about 15 percent of people experience complicated grief, a type of grief that is persistent and ongoing. Complicated grief can lead to issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse disorder, and physical illness. Young adults are more likely to suffer from complicated grief if they have a past history of depression, anxiety, or childhood trauma. One study found that more than a year after the loss of a significant friend or relative, 16 percent of young adults met the criteria for complicated grief and 34 percent had mild to severe depression. Another study found that emerging adults who had experienced both recent and past losses had significantly more grief symptoms.

Symptoms of both “normal” and complicated grief are reflected in young adults’ behaviors. They might try to distract themselves by working extra hard, exercising constantly, or staying busy all the time. Or they may withdraw from others and appear to stop caring about things that once mattered to them. Behaviors associated with complicated grief include intense sorrow and constant thoughts about the loss, feeling numb and detached, inability to enjoy or find meaning in life, and losing trust in others.

Strategies for Addressing the Symptoms of Grief

The grieving process cannot be rushed. However, there are ways to support the mind and body while you are healing from grief and loss. Here are some strategies for young adults dealing with grief.

  • Daily self-care: To counteract the physical effects of grief, it’s important to eat well, stay hydrated, get enough rest, and exercise regularly.
  • Connection: Even when it feels hard to reach out, find ways to connect with people you love and trust.
  • Creativity: Writing, creating art, and making music support healing and generate positive emotions.
  • Self-compassion: Offer yourself kindness and caring, just as you would for a good friend.
  • Breathing and meditation: Mindfulness meditation practices like conscious breathing are proven to ease distress and anxiety.
  • Therapy: Working with a trained clinician can be extremely helpful in healing from all types of grief. Contact us to learn more about outpatient services for young adults and for help finding a therapist to meet your or a loved one’s needs.
Sources

Circulation. 2012 Jan;125(3): 491–496. 

Psychosom Med. 2019 Jun;81(5):415–433.

J Nerv Ment Dis. 2014 Jul; 202(7): 539–543.

Death Stud. 2018 Oct;42(9):537–547.

Mental Health / August 18, 2020

Newport Institute

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