The notion that it is always better to talk about your emotions than to bottle them up has given rise to a flourishing counselling industry. But a new study shows that, even in the wake of traumatic events on the scale of 9/11, it is not always best to talk it out. Lead author of the study, Dr Mark Seery, talks to MercatorNet about its findings.
MercatorNet: It's September 11, 2001. Part of the Manhattan skyline has been turned to dust. Three thousand people are dead. Should we send in the trauma counsellors?
Dr Mark Seery: After a large-scale tragedy or disaster, there will undoubtedly be some people who will benefit from therapy. However, after 9/11 in particular, the need for such therapy was greatly overestimated. My understanding is that thousands of therapists travelled to New York to come to people's aid, but then ended up with few people interested in their services.
Not that it isn't important to have mental health resources available, but it is most likely incorrect to assume that everyone potentially exposed will need or want professional help. Other research has suggested that compelling people to express their thoughts and feelings in the immediate aftermath of such an event has no benefit and can even be harmful. Harm might occur by interrupting people's normal strategies for dealing with things or by making them feel like something is wrong with them if they do not feel like expressing.
Our own study addresses a related but distinct issue, in that we found evidence that choosing not to express when given an opportunity did not predict subsequent disfunction — in fact, choosing not to express predicted better outcomes.
MercatorNet: What are the implications of your study for the trauma "industry" that seems to flourish around disasters?
Seery: An important message from our findings is that the choices of whether or not to express and how much to express should be left up to each individual. Our data show that choosing not to express was not a red flag for underlying disfunction. This is consistent with the broader idea that not everyone copes with a given event in the same way. It then follows that compelling people to try to cope in a certain way will not work for everyone.
MercatorNet: It's a truism of pop psychology that talking about one's feelings is better than being reserved. Where did we get this idea?
Seery: I'm not sure where the ideas about the importance of expression have come from, but they are certainly part of our conventional wisdom. Expression can certainly be a good thing, at least in the right circumstances. But of course just because something might be a good thing sometimes or even most of the time, that does not mean it is always necessary.
MercatorNet: What exactly is a "collective trauma"? Does the term medicalise the shock and dismay after something like the fatal Virginia Tech shootings?
Seery: My co-authors and I use "collective trauma" to refer to an event that potentially negatively affects a large number of people (such as a community or even a nation), even though the vast majority have not suffered direct or tangible loss or damage.
Events like terrorist attacks and school shootings are good examples in that many people are not personally in danger, but they are nonetheless exposed through media coverage. This sort of event does not necessary meet traditional definitions of trauma, but research shows that people can still be negatively affected in ways consistent with more traditional traumas. Most people may experience only shock and dismay, but for some people it becomes more than that. The challenge is to be able to predict who those people are likely to be.
MercatorNet: Could some of the emotional spillage surrounding such events arise from the need to prove to others that one is deeply affected rather than from therapeutic need? Do you have a message for the media? Have they made grief and trauma counselling part of the frame for every tragedy story?
Seery: That certainly seems plausible. In terms of our study, I would like to see the media emphasize that there is no single healthy or right way to cope with things.
MercatorNet: In your experience what are the personal characteristics that enable people to "get over" a tragedy? Should we be doing more to foster this sort of resilience?
Seery: Trauma-related research has mostly focused on understanding negative reactions, like predictors of PTSD. However, resilience in the face of negative events is a topic that has gotten more attention recently. There is much work to be done to understand it. Certainly individual differences play a role, but also aspects of the situation. As researchers come to understand these processes better, it should be possible to help foster resilience in people.
Mark Seery, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. The study discussed in this interview is published in the June issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.