We all have our own unique ways of coping with sadness and grief, and for some people, that way is based on hiding from emotions and not letting pain show.
But a recent study has shown that not all coping mechanisms are necessarily equal and that hiding our feelings may actually have a negative physical impact as well as its mental impact.
How suppressing grief may cause inflammation.
The study, published in Psychosomatic Medicine, considered a group of around 100 people, all of whom had recently experienced the loss of a spouse. The researchers surveyed participants to find out how the individuals were coping, and what sort of behaviors they were utilizing (which they rated on a scale of 1 to 7).
The inflammation connection was found based on blood samples drawn from participants. Researchers found that people who were coping by avoiding their feelings, particularly by not expressing their emotions freely, had higher levels of cytokines, which are markers of inflammation in the blood.
“Bodily inflammation is linked to a host of negative health conditions, including serious cardiovascular issues like stroke and heart attack,” said Christopher Fagundes, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Rice who worked on the study. “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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Healthy emotional expression may help in the long term.
While it may sometimes be tempting to ignore things that make us sad or upset, this study suggests that acknowledging our feelings and allowing them to flow can be more healthy for our mental and physical states over time
“The research also suggests that not all coping strategies are created equal,” said Richard Lopez, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Bard College and lead author of the study, “and that some strategies can backfire and have harmful effects, especially in populations experiencing particularly intense emotions.”
According to the researchers, how soon after we experience loss or another highly emotional event that we allow free flow of feelings may matter. Future research will aim to find out how the timing of emotional expression affects the physical and mental impact of emotional management.
We know inflammation can affect our mental health and even be a root cause of depression or anxiety, so it’s important to ensure that we’re not adding to our mental load by increasing anxiety. And if you’re struggling with grief and with finding a way to cope, there are so many different strategies available (even yoga might help).
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