HOUSTON — Expressing emotion can be a difficult task for many people. While society is becoming more and more open about discussing feelings, emotions, and mental health, for decades adults were generally expected to keep their feelings private. Even when faced with perhaps one of the greatest tragedies that can befall an individual, the loss of a spouse, many opt to take a stoic approach to the situation and largely hide the pain they are undoubtedly feeling on the inside. Researchers from Rice University in Houston have concluded, however, that it is much healthier to open up and let out emotions in the event of losing a spouse.
According to the study’s findings, bottling one’s emotions, or maintaining a “stiff upper lip,” in this situation can actually increase one’s chances of harmful health conditions like heart attack or stroke. The research team analyzed 99 people who had recently lost their spouse.
“There has been work focused on the link between emotion regulation and health after romantic breakups, which shows that distracting oneself from thoughts of the loss may be helpful,” comments Christopher Fagundes, an associate professor of psychology at Rice and the principal investigator for the grant that funded the study, in a release. “However, the death of a spouse is a very different experience because neither person initiated the separation or can attempt to repair the relationship.”
Participants were surveyed on how they were dealing with their loss. Each person was asked to rate, on a scale of one to seven, how closely they agreed with various broad statements about coping strategies. Here’s an example: “When I’m faced with a stressful situation, I make myself think about it in a way that helps me stay calm.”
Additionally, participants had their blood drawn to look for inflammatory markers called cytokines.
“Bodily inflammation is linked to a host of negative health conditions, including serious cardiovascular issues like stroke and heart attack,” Fagundes explains.
The subsequent analysis revealed that participants more prone to bottling up their emotions also had noticeably higher levels of body inflammation in comparison to people more open with their feelings.
“The research also suggests that not all coping strategies are created equal, and that some strategies can backfire and have harmful effects, especially in populations experiencing particularly intense emotions in the face of significant life stressors, such as losing a loved one,” says lead study author Richard Lopez, an assistant professor of psychology at Bard College.
Moving forward, Fugandes and his team are going to examine a group of participants who appear to be doing quite well, from both a mental and physical perspective, six to 12 months following the loss of their spouse.
While the researchers concluded that it is important to let emotions out in the days and weeks following the death of a loved one, they also made a point to note that if an individual is still feeling intense emotions over a loss after a number of months or years have passed, it may be a sign of other mental or physical problems.
“These findings really highlight the importance of acknowledging one’s emotions after the death of a spouse rather than bottling them up,” Fagundes adds.
The study is published in Psychosomatic Medicine.