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Suppressing feelings? well its not bad

Contrary to popular notions about what is normal or healthy, new research says that it is okay not to express or share one's thoughts and feelings after any traumatic experience.

health and fitness Updated: Jun 04, 2008 15:43 IST

Contrary to popular notions about what is normal or healthy, new research says that it is okay not to express or share one's thoughts and feelings after any traumatic experience.

In fact, people who choose not to express their feelings after such an event may be better off than those who do talk about their feelings, according to University at Buffalo, New York psychologist Mark Seery, lead author of the study to appear in the June edition of 'Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.'

The study investigated the mental and physical effects of collective traumas on people who are exposed to a tragedy but who do not experience a direct loss of a friend or family member.

It focused on people's responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but the results may generalise to include responses to other collective traumas, says Seery.

Dr Roma Kumar, Clinical Psychologist, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, does not agree. She says that the best way to relieve the tension after collective trauma is to share it with the close ones.

"I can't comment on the authenticity of the study but as far as I know, the best way to calm yourself after witnessing a collective trauma is to talk about it with your loved ones. On several times I have told my patients not to keep feelings inside. After some point of time it can create problems like high blood pressure, depression or mood-disorder."

Seery says the results should not be interpreted to mean that expressing one's thoughts and feelings is harmful or that if someone wants to express their emotions they should not do so.

"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," he says.

Seery points out that immediately after last year's tragic shootings at Virginia Tech University there were many "talking head" psychiatrists in the media describing how important it is to get all the students expressing their feelings.
"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," Seery says.

"Instead, 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. 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."

Using a large national sample, Seery and co-researchers tested people's responses to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, beginning immediately after the event and continuing for the following two years. In an online survey, respondents were given the chance to express their thoughts and feelings on the day of 9/11 and a few days afterward.

The researchers then compared people who chose to express their thoughts and feelings versus those who chose not to express.

The author of the study says that if the assumption about the necessity of expression is correct, that failing to express one's feelings indicates some harmful repression or other pathology, then people who chose not to express should have been more likely to experience negative mental and physical health symptoms over time.

"However, we found exactly the opposite. People who chose not to express were better off than people who did choose to xpress," Seery says.

Moreover, when the researchers looked only at people who chose to express their thoughts and feelings, and tested the length of their responses, they found a similar pattern.

People who expressed more were worse off than people who expressed less.

"We assessed various alternative explanations in secondary analyses, but nothing else accounts for this effect," Seery says.