Bottling Up Emotions Can Be Good For You

alex atkins bookshelf cultureIn 2008 Mark Seery and his colleagues at the University of Buffalo wanted to study the effects of people who choose not to express their feelings after experiencing a collective trauma. The study focused on people’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, although the subjects did not experience the direct loss of a family member or friend. Specifically, in a random sample of 1,559 people, Seery and his colleagues recorded the responses to the 9/11 terrorist attacks immediately after the event and for the next two years. The researchers compared this data with that of people who did choose to express their thoughts and feelings about the terrorist attacks.

According to conventional wisdom, soon after a collective trauma, psychologists in popular culture and clinical practice suggest that people need to talk to overcome a collective trauma, to reduce or prevent post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, and negative impact on physical health. In this context, the study should have confirmed that people who expressed their thoughts and feelings were psychologically healthier than people who chose not to discuss their thoughts and feelings. But the researchers found the exact opposite; Seery elaborates: “[We] found exactly the opposite: people who chose not to express were better off than people who did choose to express… It’s important to remember that not everyone copes with events in the same way, and in the immediate aftermath of a collective trauma, it is perfectly healthy to not want to express one’s thoughts and feelings.” Thus, the rush to recommend discussing one’s thoughts and feelings with respect to collective trauma is overemphasized. Seery adds, “Instead, we should be telling people there is likely nothing wrong if they do not want to express their thoughts and feelings after experiencing a collective trauma. In fact, they can cope quite successfully and, according to our results, are likely to be better off than someone who does want to express his or her feelings.”

Seery’s results are an exception to most studies on bottled-up emotions that reveal a negative impact on mental and physical health. For example, a recent study by Benjamin Chapman and his colleagues at Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester, Emotion Suppression and Mortality Risk Over a 12-Year Follow-up (2013), indicated that suppression of emotion increases risks for earlier death, including death from cancer and heart disease. In 2000, Laura Kubzanski and Ichiro Karachi from the Harvard School of Public Health, reviewed the studies (1980 – 1998) about the impact of negative emotions on coronary heart disease (CHD). They conclude: “Growing evidence indicates that negative emotions may influence the development of CHD. The focused and specific consideration of negative emotions and their possible role in the etiology of CHD gives insight into current knowledge and suggests important directions for future research.”

Read related posts: The Falling Man
Moving Quotes on the 15th Anniversary of 9/11

The Poem I Turn To
Unfathomable Grief

One World Trade Center by the Numbers
The Best Books on 9/11

For further reading:

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