"The MORE [Virginia Tech students] can talk about what they've lived through, the more that they can be encouraged to emote . . . that gives them some security and insulation against burying those feelings and then having them surprise them later in life."
-- Keith Ablow, psychiatrist, on NBC's "Today," April 17, 2007
In the aftermath of the April 16, 2007, fatal shootings of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech, Ablow was simply voicing post-Freudian conventional wisdom: When something horrible happens, vent.
"The common assumption is that in order to successfully cope with a traumatic or disturbing event, people need to talk about it, to express their feelings," says Mark Seery, psychologist at the University of Buffalo. "And if they don't, they're suppressing true feelings and that will cause problems down the road."
But hold on a minute. That has simply not been proved true for all people in all circumstances, Seery says. His most recent research, in the June issue of Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, shows that after a large-scale traumatic event, such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, quickly talking about one's emotions isn't necessarily for the best.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 31, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Tragedy's effects: In Monday's Health section, an article about the emotional aftermath of tragedy had an incorrect date for a study's publication. It said research published in the June issue of Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology had shown that after a large-scale traumatic event, quickly talking about one's emotions isn't necessarily for the best. That study is scheduled to appear in the journal's August issue.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, August 04, 2008 Home Edition Health Part F Page 8 Features Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Tragedy's effects: In the July 28 Health section, an article about the emotional aftermath of tragedy had an incorrect date for a study's publication. It said research published in the June issue of Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology had shown that after a large-scale traumatic event, quickly talking about one's emotions isn't necessarily for the best. That study is scheduled to appear in the journal's August issue.
"In the immediate aftermath of a collective trauma, it's perfectly healthy to not want to express your thoughts and feelings," he says.
In fact, it can do more harm than good. Some people have periods of what psychologists call "healthy denial." Like Scarlet O'Hara, they cope by promising themselves to think about it tomorrow. Being pushed to give voice to their worst reactions too soon could embed the worst of it in memory and cause them to dwell on the tragedy. And if they can't or won't talk, urging them to act against their instincts could make them think that something is wrong with them.
The new study is in line with other mental health research that suggests some things are better left temporarily unsaid -- at least for some people. Those who immediately talk about the trauma of an attack or a hurricane can find, as often as not, that airing it doesn't change the memory and fails to bring relief. Seery found that those who responded quickly to prompts to write online about the attacks had higher levels of stress two weeks later. Months later, they were more likely to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In his bereavement research, James Pennebaker, chair of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, found that choosing not to express feelings in the face of a death reflected resilience, rather than vulnerability. Pennebaker's research examines expressive emoting, and research results on bereavement and trauma often overlap.
None of this negates the value of talk therapy or of expressing thoughts and emotions when it feels right. But the new research suggests that widespread use of clinical techniques that are proved to help some situations -- like a couple in marital trouble or a depressed person exploring emotions with a therapist -- has gotten ahead of the evidence on the best course of mental healthcare after a disaster.
"Rubbing people's noses in their miserable experiences immediately after is probably bad for a significant number of people," Pennebaker says.
Debriefers at the scene
Despite a lack of proof that expressing feelings right away is good, the United States has an industry of people, called critical incident stress debriefers, whose job it is to converge on disaster sites and get people to talk about their feelings.
Not necessarily mental health experts, debriefers sent by city or county health, fire or police departments have had training in what to say to encourage emoting after a disaster. They head to scenes of death and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, floods in Iowa or fires throughout California, not to mention human-made horrors like the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center or the Columbine or Virginia Tech school shootings.
Yet a 2006 review of studies on such debriefings in the Review of General Psychology found, in general, either no benefit or worse outcomes from the interventions.
"If it's immediately after an upheaval, it's completely foolish to do that," Pennebaker says. "Some people naturally talk and listen to others. If they don't want to talk about it, they don't. If they do, they do. They may need help in two months, but they may not want help then."