A new study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology suggests that venting — or letting off steam — about something horrible that happens to us or that we experience may actually be less beneficial than not talking about it. PsyBlog has the story:
This study’s first set of data was collected on the day of September 11th 2001. As people sat at home trying to digest the shocking events of the day, 36,000 people were contacted through the internet. These people were part of a pre-selected nationally representative sample of participants who had already agreed to receive regular requests for surveys.
They were simply prompted to express whatever thoughts and emotions were currently on their minds, should they choose to do so. Of all these people, 2,138 people were followed up over a period of two years after 9/11 to see how they coped with the collective trauma.
The aim of the researcher’s prompt was to make it similar to a psychologist asking someone to share their experience after they witness a traumatic event. Naturally some people choose to share and others don’t. In this study 1,559 chose to respond while 579 remained silent.
The results make surprising reading.
What they found was that choosing to respond to the prompt was a significant predictor of suffering post-traumatic stress (PTS). What’s more, the longer the response, the greater the level of subsequent PTS.
This suggests that, contrary to popular expectations, expressing thoughts and emotions soon after a traumatic event – ‘letting off steam’ or ‘venting’ – might actually predict a worse psychological outcome.
These results would need to be replicated in other studies before you’re going to notice a significant change in how trauma counselors work. The long standing theory was that by letting people express themselves freely after such an event, it helped the person “process” their emotions. This is often thought to be helpful when done in a safe and supportive therapeutic environment.
What the study can’t tell us, because it didn’t ask, was whether “venting” through the Internet is qualitatively different than venting to a person, face-to-face. It may be that the intermediary effects of talking back to a survey is significantly different than doing so to another human being (especially one trained in counseling a person with coping with trauma).
Until further research is done, we shouldn’t generalize from these results. But it does provide an intriguing clue as to how a well-worn therapeutic technique may not be appropriate or useful in all situations.
Read the full PsyBlog entry: Venting Emotions After Trauma Predicts Worse Outcomes
Read the news article about the study: Not Talking About Some Things May Be Ok