New Research Suggests Emotional Inflexibility Can Complicate Grief

“Bereavement is a painful event that most people experience at some point in their lives. While most bereaved people are able to resume normal functioning within a year after the loss, a small but important subset, usually around 10–15%, continue to suffer from prolonged grief symptoms for several years or longer,” said Sumati Gupta and George A. Bonanno, of the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. “Although relatively little research has yet explored the possible mechanisms of complicated grief (CG), there is good reason to suspect that deficits in emotion regulation play a role in the disorder.” The researchers conducted a study to determine if people who suffer with CG actually experience such severe and prolonged symptoms in part due to inability to regulate emotions, which is a critical function for maintaining social relationships. They added, “The ability to flexibly modulate emotional expression appears to be especially important for adjustment in the aftermath of highly aversive or demanding life circumstances.”

The team enlisted 54 married participants and 64 individuals who had lost a spouse in the previous three years. The bereaved subjects were categorized into a group of asymptomatic subjects or those with CG. The participants were enrolled in two separate assessment sessions, two weeks apart. During each session, the individuals were shown pictures that were designed to elicit negative or positive emotions. The study revealed that the individuals in the CG group responded with more negative emotions and more symptoms of depression than those in the asymptomatic or married groups. “Importantly, however, CG participants evidenced relatively less ability to enhance emotional expressions and suppress emotional expressions (i.e., less expressive flexibility) relative to the asymptomatic bereaved and married groups.” They added, “This study provided important preliminary evidence that persons suffering from Complicated Grief are less able to flexibly enhance and suppress their expressions of emotion compared to asymptomatic bereaved and non-bereaved adults.”

Gupta, Sumati, and George A. Bonanno. “Complicated Grief and Deficits in Emotional Expressive Flexibility.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 123.3 (2011): 635-43. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Virginia


    August 27th, 2011 at 1:25 PM

    I wonder if these people who have CG experience difficulty in regulating other emotions in their lives as well and how this also complicates their other relationships in life. It would not seem that this sort of inflexibility would be limited strictly to just one area.

  • danny


    August 28th, 2011 at 3:12 AM

    ^^that is exactly what I thought of.and I think it would have an impact on their relationships as well.because if they are hurt by someone then they have difficulty in getting over that hurt and it would then definitely affect the relationship with that person.

  • kyle


    August 28th, 2011 at 5:19 AM

    All of that inflexibility could cause one to stagnate in one spot, never giving themselves the chance that they need to heal and to be free of the grief. I would never wish to live that way.

  • ADAM


    August 28th, 2011 at 6:55 PM

    It’s obvious such people react better to a surprise and a shock rather than slow transition.They can get sad due to a loss(whose news would be a surprise for sure) but fail to recover through a slow transition. So maybe giving them a good surprise fixes that..?

  • Chris.T


    August 29th, 2011 at 3:55 AM

    I have always had this problem of not being able to get over an unpleasant situation easily.And frankly,I thought I was the only one.That is because almost everyone around me seems to get over such things pretty easily.

    At least now I know I’m not alone.Is there anything that can help me and several others with this?

  • watson


    August 29th, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    this is so true..I observe people a lot and I have to say the reports are so true..some people can get over things so easily while others can have a hard time dealing with the exact same thing.its actually a fine display of the diversity in the various personalities.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.



* Indicates required field.

Therapist   Treatment Center

Advanced Search

Search Our Blog

Title   Content   Author is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on