Your lab studies stress responses to grief and looked at bereavement and inflammation and how cortisol affects us. What is happening here?
Grieving is incredibly stressful. It's stressful for the body, and it's stressful for the mind. In fact, I sometimes say grieving is a little like trying to learn calculus while also training for a marathon. In research from my own lab and from others, we know that bereavement usually causes an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone, and causes increases in IL-6, one of the inflammatory markers of the immune system. And it's stressful both because of all the emotions, and intrusive thoughts, and difficulty sleeping that we have when we lose a loved one. But it's also stressful because we suddenly have to restore a life without this person. So if you lost a spouse, you may also have lost a co-parent, or you may have lost a breadwinner. Or as an older couple, you may have lost the person who drives, and so all of the stresses of all of the new things that you have to learn to do now in their absence. And as though all of that wasn't hard enough, one of the things that usually reduces stress for many of us is spending time with our loved ones. So in this moment, where you are so incredibly overwhelmed, often the very person that you would have turned to to feel comfort, to have that dopamine, and oxytocin, and opioid increase by spending time with them and being cared for and loved by them, often, this is exactly the person who is gone, which makes the bereavement stress feel even harder, given that we don't have a way or the same way to overcome that. Human beings are remarkably resilient though, and it turns out that most of us are able to find support from another person. And so reaching out during this time of stress, taking care of your physical body are both incredibly important during grief.