To talk or not to talk, apparently that is the question, especially after a collective catastrophe, such as 9-11 or the Virginia Tech University shootings. A paper that will be published in the June issue of Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology reveals that — contrary to current opinion — verbally expressing one’s emotions is not necessary to cope successfully with a community tragedy, and in fact, doing so might actually be harmful.
Expressing one’s emotions in the aftermath of a community tragedy is often the expected “normal way” for coming to terms with these events and one’s experience with them. Worse, television psychologists often tout this, too, without any scientific evidence to support their assertions.
“This perfectly exemplifies the assumption in popular culture, and even in clinical practice, that people need to talk in order to overcome a collective trauma,” observed lead author Mark Seery, an assistant professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, NY.
The psychological community claims that supressing one’s emotional reactions to a community trauma is counterproductive and likely to result in increased physical and mental problems in the future.
“It’s important to remember that not everyone copes with events in the same way, and in the immediate aftermath of a collective trauma, it is perfectly healthy to not want to express one’s thoughts and feelings,” Seery points out.
To learn more about how expressing or supressing one’s emotions affects people, the researchers used online surveys to collect data from 1,559 Americans across the nation. The surveys were an open-ended question asking about one’s “thoughts on the shocking events of today” and was emailed on September 11, 2001, and continued for a few weeks afterwards.
“If the assumption about the necessity of expression is correct, then we should expect those who are failing to share would be the ones to express more negative mental and physical health conditions,” reports Seery. However, their findings did not support this assumption at all.
When the team compared the long-term physical and psychological health of “expressive” people to “supressive” people, they were surprised to discover that those who chose to remain silent about their emotions reported fewer health problems two years later.
“I would have thought that the people who did not want to express, that they would have been worse off,” admitted Seery.
Interestingly, the team also found that people who expressed more ended up with worse mental and physical health two years later than did those who expressed less. This surprising effect was even more pronounced among those who lived close to the twin towers.
After reading this paper, I was left wondering if those who are less likely to express their emotions after a collective trauma are also less likely to report physical or mental health problems?
But nonetheless, these findings have important implications for how people should be expected to respond to a traumatic event that affects a community or even an entire nation. Recognizing that not everyone reacts in the same way to such events, nor expecting them to, makes intuitive sense to me. In short, respecting differences in individual coping mechanisms seems to be the most healing.
Seery, M.D., Silver, R.C., Holman, E.A., Ence, W.A., Chu, Q.T. (2008). Expressing thoughts and feelings following a collective trauma: Immediate responses to 9/11 predict negative outcomes in a national sample. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(3)