Widows lose ability to think positive

CORNELL (US) — A steep drop in positive emotions—not a spike in negative ones—causes widows to experience increased illness and mental health issues.

Widows experience a significant decline in positive emotions and show a flattened daily rhythm of salivary cortisol, compared to those who have not lost a spouse, according to a new study. Cortisol is a marker for stress response.

Using data from a national survey that included information from telephone interviews and surveys 10 years apart, researchers identified 22 individuals who had been widowed within three years of the follow-up interview and had not remarried and compared them with a random sample of 22 continuously married individuals selected to match the widowed adults in age, gender, and education.

The survey data included measures of positive emotions (how much time participants felt cheerful, happy, calm and peaceful), and negative emotions (sadness and hopelessness) and also assessed personality traits as extraversion (being outgoing and friendly) and neuroticism (moodiness, nervousness, anxiousness). Participants provided saliva samples, which are commonly used to measure stress levels.

Changes in the level of positive emotion accounted for the changes in the cortisol slope found among those who had lost their spouse, says Anthony Ong, assistant professor of human development at Cornell University. “These findings add to other recent evidence that positive emotions are beneficial during bereavement.”

Details of the study are reported in the journal Health Psychology.

The study shows why support during the bereavement process is important, Ong says.

“Following loss of a spouse, social worlds contract. Failure to reconstruct these sources of enjoyment and mobilize adequate positive emotional resources in the aftermath of loss is a significant risk.

“Interventions designed to help bereaved individuals rebuild opportunities for positive emotional engagement are promising.”

Researchers from Penn State, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Columbia University contributed to the study, that was supported John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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