Self-expression: A Solution for Traumatic Times

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

Research suggests that widows and widowers who talked and expressed feelings about their spouse's death had far fewer mental and physical health problems after the death than those who did not. This also seems to hold true when dealing with other major life stressors such as:

  • Death
  • Job loss
  • An accident
  • Rape
  • Abuse
  • Suicide
  • Divorce
  • Marital infidelity
  • Other painful or traumatic experiences

Those that avoided talking about stressors were more likely to have:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Recurrent unwanted thoughts and dreams
  • A variety of physical health problems such as frequent colds and flu

People with an inhibited personality or a repressive coping style are most at risk for problems. They are typically cautious, restrained, and rarely share their deepest thoughts and feelings. These people tend to crave order and predictability. This makes it harder to be flexible, acknowledge emotions, and open up to others when faced with trauma. Even though they appear to be managing trauma better, they may in fact, be adding to their suffering.

The Value of Talking

Talking does not mean someone else can "fix" the problem. It is just a way to work out thoughts and emotions around the events. Sometimes this may mean that you talk about the same things repeatedly. This process can:

  • Increase insight or perspective into the event
  • Lead to greater self-understanding
  • Help the grieving or letting go process
  • Improve moods
  • Create a more positive outlook

Surprisingly, even positive events, like a promotion, wedding, or cash windfall can lead to health problems if they are not talked about. It is healthy to openly express positive as well as negative emotions.

Before You Confide: Things to Consider

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, person who will not share what you have told her or him. You may also want to consider the role this person has in your life. You may share different things with friends and family then you would with a mentor or boss. Remember, this is not about them "fixing" anything, just lending an ear.

You may also want to find a therapist. As a third party, they can offer objective observations. These sessions are also protected under medical privacy laws. A support group may also help. Many are geared toward a specific group so you can talk to people in similar situations. Just hearing that others are feeling same emotions can help.

Talk therapy may not be for everyone. 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

Writing about emotional upheaval has been shown to improve physical and emotional health. Some studies have shown that writing after a trauma, helped to reduce anxiety and depression. Those that tried this therapy were also more likely to find new jobs, and get better grades in college.

This method may not only be effective but easy to access and cost no more than paper and pen. Here are a few things you need to consider before using this method of self-expression:

  • Experiment—Writing may or may not help you. If you find it does not help you, try other methods. Do not use writing to avoid taking direct action with a problem.
  • Choose a topic—Your topic should be an issue that you find yourself thinking or dreaming about. It may be something that you are afraid or embarrassed to express openly.
  • Let go—Do not censor your writing. For this reason, your writing should be kept strictly to yourself. Do not worry about grammar or spelling. Write about the experience itself as well as your deepest feelings about the experience. Think about what you feel and why you feel that way.
  • Do not expect to feel better right away—Many people find that they feel sad and depressed for an hour or so after writing. This is especially true for those who are writing about a present trauma, such as death or divorce. For most, however, writing will bring relief and more positive moods over time.

Lending an Ear

Sometimes you do not know what to do when a friend has lost a loved one or has some other trauma. You may avoid bringing up the trauma for fear that it will make the person upset. This approach is usually not helpful. Chances are, the friend is thinking about the trauma a great deal and needs to talk about it. One of the most supportive things you can say to a friend in crisis is, "Please feel free to talk about it." and be ready to simply listen when they do.

We tend to be talkers instead of listeners. Some tips include:

  • Start with an invitation such as "I wanted to see how you are doing today."
  • Focus on listening instead of talking. Encourage conversation with nods, or occasional comments like "that must be hard". Listen intently, don't be distracted with other tasks.
  • End conversation with "Let's talk again soon."

RESOURCES:

The American Institute of Stress
http://www.stress.org/
American Psychological Association
http://www.apa.org/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Mental Health Association
http://www.ontario.cmha.ca/index.asp
Canadian Psychiatric Association
http://www.cpa-apc.org

References:

Baikie K, Wilhelm K. Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, Volume 11, Issue 5 January 2018. 338.
Comforting the Bereaved Through Supportive Listening. Legacy website. Available at: https://www.legacy.com/advice/comforting-the-bereaved-through-supportive-listening/. Accessed May 22, 2020.
Does Talk Therapy Really Work? Pscyhology Today website. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-couch/201011/does-talk-therapy-really-work. Created November 6, 2020. Accessed May 22, 2020.

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This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

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