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After Traumatic Event, No Need to Spill Your Guts

We health bloggers read an awful lot of scientific studies. Most of the ones I read confirm a hunch, telling us something we already thought we knew. Some actually turn up bona fide discoveries that open exciting new fields of inquiry and knowledge.

But my favorites are the ones that take a widely held belief and turn it on its head.

A study in the June issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (published by the American Psychological Association) does just that. Mark Seery, an assistant professor of psychology at University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, led a research team that debunks the notion that when something bad happens, people need to talk about it or they'll be in psychological peril.

Seery starts his report by citing Keith Ablow, M.D., who, in the wake of last year's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, maintained on NBC's Today show that

The more they[VirginiaTechstudents] 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.

Seery and his team, through a stroke of serendipity, were able to test that idea directly after the trauma that is now known as 9/11. As it happened, the team had already amassed a randomly selected national sample of people who'd been completing on-line surveys for them for some time before September 11, 2001. When that disaster struck, the team was perfectly poised to survey those people right away; the survey went out on 9/11.

Seery points out that the team was in the rare position, in the world of post-trauma research, of being able to get a survey into people's hands immediately; also rare was the fact that the researchers knew a lot about what these folks were like before the trauma, so they could make meaningful comparisons afterward. The study participants were surveyed several other times during the two years following the attacks.

The post 9/11 survey asked people to respond if they felt like sharing their feelings about the events of that day. Now, if the recipients had followed common wisdom, they would have all written right back and aired all their feelings right away, and they'd be better off for having done so, right?

Many -- 1,559 people -- did write back. But guess what? Those who chose to keep mum (there were 579 of them) by and large ended up healthier, mentally and physically, than those who shared their feelings after the trauma. And they maintained those benefits even two years later.

The study wasn't able to pinpoint exactly why things worked out this way. Maybe the people who opted not to respond were inherently more resilient than the others. Maybe they just weren't as traumatized by the events as the quick-to-respond people were.

In any case, the study sends a pretty clear set of messages. For people like you and me, Seery told me on the phone, that message is that if you don't feel like talking after something bad happens, that's probably okay.

For clinicians and those concerned with public health, the message is that, instead of using resources to ferret out people who don't feel like talking and suggest they talk to a counselor anyway, it might be best to concentrate on those who do want to talk and let them talk.

And as for the media, we should be careful not just to accept common wisdom as fact. Think of all the people who must have felt compelled to talk things out after Virginia Tech, even if they didn't really want to. Might they have fared even better had they not heeded the advice they heard on TV?

Anybody feel like talking?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  June 3, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Psychology  
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