It’s Healthy Not to Express Feelings after a Trauma

Jerry Kennard Health Pro

    How important or necessary is it for us to express our emotions following a collective trauma such as the 9/11 tragedy? If we choose to keep our thoughts to ourselves is it a sign of some potentially harmful repression or other pathology? Not according to a study to be published in the June edition of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.


    Mark Seery, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, investigated the effects of collective traumas such as school shootings or terrorist attacks. The main feature of the study was an investigation on the psychological and physical effects of exposure to a tragic event whilst not personally experiencing the direct loss of a friend or family member. Contrary to the popular notion that it is necessary for everyone exposed to such traumas to have an outlet for their thoughts and emotions, Seery found that people who prefer to keep their thoughts to themselves may be better off.

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    The study involved an online survey set up following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Dr Seery, an expert in the psychology of stress, sent an email to more 2,000 men and women who were already involved in university research, just hours after the attack asking them to share their thoughts 'on the shocking events of today'. Only three-quarters chose to reply. The whole group were then regularly re-contacted over the next two years, requesting details of their health. Seery and his team then compared people who chose to express themselves with those who did not.

    According to the assumption that it is necessary to express emotions after a traumatic event, it follows that those who do not should be more likely to experience negative mental and physical health symptoms over time. The research team found exactly the opposite. When the team moved on to examine only the results from people who did express their views they found those who expressed more were worse off than those who expressed less.


    What Seery and his team effectively touch on is the fact that a one-size-fits-all approach to therapy is rarely effective. Seery feels his findings have important implications for expectations of how people should respond in the face of trauma affecting a community or even the nation. Following the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech University, Seery observed a number of therapists on the media promoting the importance of getting all the students to express their feelings. Seery pointed out that, "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."


    Dr Seery states his results do not mean that it is bad for people to express their feelings so much as it is both normal and acceptable for people to choose not to. "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 states.

Published On: June 02, 2008