A traumatic experience may cause its sufferers to look for friends to share their emotions with, but a new research suggests that bottling up the shocking feelings may be the best way to deal with such an ordeal.
UC Irvine psychologist Roxane Cohen Silver believes that this finding may actually change how institutions devote money and resources to mental health services following collective traumas.
During the study, she and her colleagues focussed on the relationship between immediate expression after a traumatic event, and mental and physical well-being over time among a nationally representative sample.
The researchers questioned participants after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and followed them for a period of two years.
They found that the participants who chose not to express thoughts and emotions about the attacks when given the opportunity to do so through an anonymous, Web-based survey, appeared to cope successfully and reported fewer diagnosed physical and mental disorders.
On the other hand, those who expressed their thoughts and feelings about the attacks experienced more physical health problems and emotional distress over time, even after controlling for exposure to and distance from the attacks.
Silver said that the results might have important implications for understanding the role of expression in the coping process, and for early post-trauma intervention.
"Some people don't need to express thoughts and feelings after trauma and do just fine, and it's a myth that you must express your distress in order to recover. Mandatory or required psychological counseling is often unwarranted and universal intervention is likely to be a waste of resources," said Silver.
She said that a standard and universal line of approach to trauma counseling could result in misappropriation of resources away from individuals who are truly at risk.
It might also hamper the natural coping processes that take place when individuals seek support and advice from family and close friends, she added.
"This study also shows how dangerous it can be to rely on hunches and common sense when attempting to provide intervention after a trauma experienced by a large group of people, such as the 9/11 attacks, but it can also be applied to situations like school shootings," she said.
The researchers warned that the higher rates of illness among those who did respond did not imply that expressing thoughts and feelings is harmful.
They maintained that those wanting to talk should still do so, but still it is important to keep in mind that not everyone copes in the same way, and in the immediate repercussions of a collective trauma the best way to deal with the situation is not to express thoughts and feelings.
The study appears in the latest issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.