We are often told to “stay strong” after a loved one passes.
While maintaining composure in the face of adversity may sound like a good advice, research suggests bottling up your emotions could be bad for your health.
Scientists from Rice University in Houston looked at 99 people who had recently lost their spouse.
The team found those who suppressed their emotions had higher markers of inflammation in their blood.
Inflammation has been linked to everything from heart disease to an impaired immune system.
“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,” study author Dr Christopher Fagundes said.
“However, the death of a spouse is a very different experience because neither person initiated the separation or can attempt to repair the relationship.
“These findings really highlight the importance of acknowledging one's emotions after the death of a spouse rather than bottling them up.”
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The participants completed a questionnaire that asked the extent to which they agreed with statements like, “when I'm faced with a stressful situation, I make myself think about it in a way that helps me stay calm”.
Blood samples were collected to measure inflammatory markers.
Results - published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine - revealed those who generally suppressed their emotions had significantly higher levels of the immune-fighting proteins interleukin, tumor necrosis factor α and interferon-γ.
All of these have been linked to inflammation.
“Bodily inflammation is linked to a host of negative health conditions, including serious cardiovascular issues like stroke and heart attack,” Dr Fagundes said.
The scientists hope their results will help those battling grief.
“The research suggests not all coping strategies are created equal, and 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”, lead author Dr Richard Lopez said.
The team plan to analyse people who manage to avoid “considerable and prolonged physical and mental health problems” six and 12 months after their spouse dies.
While expressing your emotions may be beneficial initially, the scientists wonder if continuing to feel down in the long run could be a sign of a serious underlying issue.