Talking After Trauma Not Always Necessary
> 6/12/2008 4:25:15 PM

Survivors of traumatic events are often advised to talk about what they experienced, but, as researchers from the University of Buffalo point out in a recent study, research has not proven that this strategy actually protects against mental distress. Through their work, which appears in the June issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, the researchers investigated the effects of expressing feelings immediately after a trauma. Their results indicate that for some people and in some situations, silence is a suitable and even beneficial response.

The researchers were able to study information provided by over 2,000 individuals from all over the country who had agreed to be surveyed periodically through email. The group was sent an email survey on September 11th, 2001, and in addition to questions on their mental and physical health, they were given space in which they could share their feelings about the tragedy of that day. They were surveyed again two days later, then two weeks later, and then twice a year for two years. When the researchers compared the 1,559 subjects who wrote about their experiences to the 579 subjects who chose not to, they found an interesting pattern. Not only were those who expressed their thoughts more likely to have mental and physical health problems throughout the subsequent two years, but the length of their response corresponded to the severity of their situation. Those who write the most were more likely to report stress or be diagnosed with mental or physical conditions. Not surprisingly, these trends were most evident among subjects who lived closest to where the attacks took place, where individuals were more likely to have felt greater distress.

While these results seem to indicate that talking after a trauma can cause poor health outcomes, several explanations may be behind the association. In particular, the subjects who did not write about their experiences may not have been affected by the tragedy as greatly as subjects who did write, although it’s also possible that subjects who shared their thoughts were more prone to mental illness to begin with or less resilient to trauma. The reasons underlying this connection remain unclear, but this study provides evidence that talking after an upsetting experience, while it may be helpful for many, is not always necessary. Researchers have already questioned the theory that responding to trauma with silence will lead to psychiatric problems, especially in regards to the experiences of trauma survivors in therapy. Many survivors receive critical incident stress debriefing, where an individual discusses their reactions to trauma as a way to reduce stress and return to a normal level of functioning. However, studies have shown that this technique does not always work and could actually elevate an individual’s symptoms of distress.

Every person responds to trauma differently and uses different strategies for coping, as this current study illustrates. For some, discussing what they have been through is an integral part of recovery. Others may not want to talk, and pressuring them to do so may prove more damaging than beneficial.

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