June 2, 2008

Keeping Quiet After Traumatic Event Can Be Better

A University of Buffalo study has found that people who do not discuss traumatic experiences fare better than those who fully express their emotions after the event.

The researchers examined 3,000 study participants who took different approaches to stress management in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The participants completed online surveys in the days immediately following the attacks and over the course of the next two years. The participants were assigned to different groups based on whether or not they felt ready to express their feelings. None had lost a friend of loved one in the tragedy.

In general, the study found those who did not talk about the event were less likely to be adversely affected two years later.

Popular wisdom has long held that expressing one's feelings following a traumatic event was preferable to keeping things "Ëœall bottled up', and significant research has been conducted on the subject.   If the assumption that it is healthier to talk about feelings is correct, then the researchers, led by Dr Mark Seery, would have observed those who were initially uncommunicative coping worse with their traumatic memories over time.

However, the current study, led by Dr. Mark Seery, found the reverse to be true, finding instead that those who chose not to talk about their experiences appeared to be in better shape psychologically.

"We should be telling people there is likely nothing wrong if they do not want to express their thoughts and feelings after experiencing a collective trauma," Dr Seery told BBC News.

"In fact, they can cope quite successfully and, according to our results, are likely to be better off than someone who does want to express his or her feelings."

But one British psychologist said that other studies had suggested that for many, talking did help.  Professor Stephen Joseph, a trauma specialist, told BBC News it was important not to generalize treatment approaches for all patients, and cited other studies that found talking about traumatic experiences, along with proper counseling, offered the best path to recovery.

"Those people who wanted to express their feelings immediately after 9/11 may have been those who were most deeply affected by it, so it is not entirely unsurprising that they may still have symptoms two years later," he said.

The study was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.


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University of Buffalo

Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology

British Psychological Society