Self-expression: A Solution for Traumatic Times
by Amy Scholten, MPH
Talk about your trauma and pain or put on a happy face? Research suggests that expressing painful thoughts and feelings may help reduce the risk of illness.
Charles is a 37 year-old engineer who lost his wife in a fatal car accident six months ago. When asked how he was coping with the death, he responded, "I keep busy with my projects. I have an active social life and have developed new interests. To be honest with you, I have been too busy to sit around and cry about things…and I do not want to bring other people down. I have just accepted that my life is not going to be the same anymore."
Meg is a 50 year-old mother of three whose husband died in a car crash two years ago. She has a different coping style than Charles. "I've been in counseling since John's death and joined a support group. I have found additional support from family members, friends, and through prayer."
By outward appearances, Charles seems to be resilient in the face of his wife's death, while Meg spends many emotional days and nights talking about and openly grieving her tragic loss, but whose coping style is really the healthiest?
The Dangers of Inhibition
In 1982, James Pennebaker, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Texas, conducted research on the surviving spouses of suicide and car accident victims. He found that those who talked and expressed feelings about their spouse's death had remarkably fewer physical and emotional health problems during the year after the death than those who did not.
According to Dr. Pennebaker, additional studies have demonstrated that not talking about major life stressors, past or present, is a health risk. Such stressors include:
Not talking about them (inhibition) may be linked to these conditions:
People with an inhibited personality or a repressive coping style are most at risk. They are typically cautious, restrained, and rarely disclose their deepest thoughts and feelings, traits that are esteemed in American society. However, because these people tend to crave order and predictability, they have an especially difficult time being flexible, acknowledging emotions, and opening up to others when faced with trauma.
Good Times and Bad
Surprisingly, Dr. Pennebaker cites several studies that suggest that even positive events, such as receiving a promotion, getting married, having a baby, or winning the lottery, may contribute to health problems if they are not talked about. It is healthy to openly express positive as well as negative emotions.
The Value of Talking
As far back as the late 1800s, physicians Sigmund Freud and Joseph Breuer believed in the value of talk therapy as a way of discharging pent-up feelings and psychic tension.
Additional benefits of talking about a stressor or trauma may include:
Before You Confide: Things to Consider
Before you share your deepest thoughts, feelings, or secrets with another person, keep in mind that choosing the wrong person as a confidante could do you more harm than good. It is very important that you find a trustworthy, non-judgmental, supportive confidante who will not share what you have told her or him. You may want to find a therapist, someone who can provide you with objectivity as well as anonymity.
What if you prefer not to talk? According to Dr. Pennebaker, there are a number of ways we can express our thoughts and emotions in addition to talking with a friend, a support group, or a therapist. Other effective modes of emotional expression include talking into a tape recorder, keeping a journal , writing letters, praying, or engaging in dance, art, or music.
The "Write" Preventive Medicine
Studies involving grade-school children, nursing home residents, arthritis sufferers, medical school students, maximum security prisoners, new mothers, and rape victims, have suggested that writing about emotional upheaval improved physical and emotional health. In other studies, writing about emotionally difficult experiences helped people reduce anxiety and depression, find new jobs, and get better grades in college.
Writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings can be good medicine and it is easy and inexpensive. Here are a few things you need to consider before using this method of self-expression:
The American Institute of Stress
American Psychological Association
Canadian Mental Health Association
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Goleman D. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. London, England: Bloomsbury; 1996.
Pennebaker JW. Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. New York, NY: Guilford Press; 1997.
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