Grief is personal. We all will deal with the loss of a friend or family member in a different way. But science is helping us understand something: that bottling up your emotions after someone dies is bad for you both physically and mentally.
Prince Harry has been incredibly vocal about how containing his grief after the death of his mum, Princess Diana, meant he faced two years of “total chaos”, until he went to see a counsellor about it.
He said at the time: “I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well.”
And the physical repercussions can also be huge. A new study from Rice University, Texas, found people who avoid expressing their emotions suffer more bodily inflammation than those who express their emotions freely. If you’re wondering why that matters, inflammation is linked to a host of negative health conditions, including serious cardiovascular issues like stroke and heart attack.
Researchers spoke to 99 people who had recently lost a spouse. They were asked how they were coping with the loss of their loved one and to rate, on a scale of one to seven, how closely they agreed with statements about certain coping strategies. They also had blood tests to measure inflammation levels.
Those who bottled up their emotion were found to have higher levels of bodily inflammation. “These findings really highlight the importance of acknowledging one’s emotions after the death of a spouse rather than bottling them up,” said Christopher Fagundes, an associate professor of psychology at Rice University.
Expressing emotions immediately after loss can promote better physical and mental health outcomes, researchers said, while noting that, after a certain amount of time, if could actually signal severe and prolonged mental and physical health issues, they noted.
The study’s results aren’t surprising. Previous research has linked chronic psychological stress with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response, and therefore promoting the development and progression of disease. And it’s not the first time bottling up emotion has been linked to negative health outcomes either.
A 2013 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester found people who suppressed their emotions increased their chance of an early death by more than 30%. It also increased their risk of being diagnosed with cancer by 70%.
Counsellor and psychotherapist Nora Allali-Carling says the fact that bottling up emotions can impact the body physically is nothing new. She often sees clients who are bereaved struggle with irritable bowel syndrome, for example.
“Often you find people have lower immune systems after a bereavement, particularly with a spouse or significant other,” she explains. “Colds, coughs, aches and pains is another common one, especially in the shoulders and upper limbs.” Her clients will often report pain around the chest and stomach, too.
“With a bereavement where somebody bottles up those emotions, all those feelings – negative or positive – remain in the body,” she continues. “Not being able to share those, or express those, does impact the body.”
Cruse Bereavement Care supports around 60,000 people a year, either face-to-face or on the phone. “We find many of the people who turn to us have experienced physical health problems after they have been bereaved,” says Andy Langford, the charity’s chief operating officer.
“This is why talking about how you feel is so important. Not only can this lift the intense weight of grief, but over time it can contribute to making you feel physically better. Isolation can starve us of this human contact and we can feel worse. So it is vital to speak with someone you can trust, this could be a family member a close friend or support services like Cruse.”
As for why people might bottle up grief in this way, Allali-Carling says: “The emotion is so strong and intense, it can be overwhelming and all-consuming. You don’t really know how to show it until people have given you permission to grieve, but also you have given yourself permission to grieve.
“A lot of people don’t know what to do with those feelings.”
If you are struggling with a bereavement and it’s impacting day-to-day life, she recommends seeing your GP as a first port of call, who can refer you to a therapist. There are plenty of charities, like Cruse, which also offer support and online forums can be a helpful way to speak with other people who are bereaved.
A spokesperson for charity Widowed and Young adds: “We would advise anyone who has been bereaved to talk to other people about how they are feeling – whether that’s to a friend, relative, health professional or to other people who have been through the same thing.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.