The Good in Feeling Bad

Not all negative emotions are bad for you. Plus, greeting obstacles with joy, pain but not suffering, nastiness and what matters to us.

Opening Up When Tragedy Strikes: Are You Sure It’s a Good Thing?

The myths about coping

The world seems besieged by a tsunami of traumas - earthquakes, flooding, oil spills, mining disasters, terrorist threats, and more. Individuals face their own disturbing life events that don't make the nightly news - grim diagnoses, an accident resulting in severe disability, the death of a close friend or family member, even the sudden death of an infant.

In our therapeutic and confessional culture, we think we know what victims need - the immediate opportunity to open up about their experiences, to express their emotions rather than keeping them bottled up. Clinical psychologists sometimes rush in to offer their help.

This post is a bit off my usual topic of singlism and single life (though I'll stretch to make a connection at the end), but I just heard a fabulous talk about the psychology of responses to trauma, and I wanted to tell you about just one of the many insightful nuggets from it. The speaker was Roxane Silver, a social psychologist who has studied more different kinds of personal and collective traumas, more deeply and rigorously, than anyone else ever has.

On September 11, 2001, Roxane Silver immediately found a way to survey a nationally representative sample of Americans. This was the opportunity they were offered: "If you would like, please share your thoughts on the shocking events of today." She continued to collect data from those people for several years. (To see the full paper and all of the details, click on the 6th paper down under "Selected Publications" on this page. Many of Silver's other papers may also be of interest.)

The conventional wisdom about coping is that the victims who open up most quickly and most completely will be those who fare best psychologically. Silver and her colleagues found just the opposite (from p. 664):

"Our results did not support the common assumption that choosing NOT to express one's thoughts and feelings in the immediate aftermath of a collective trauma - or expressing them only minimally - is harmful and indicative of vulnerability to future negative consequences. Instead, the opposite pattern emerged. Respondents who elected not to express when given the opportunity to do so exhibited lower PTS [post-traumatic stress] symptoms over the following 2 years, compared with respondents who chose to express. In addition, less expression in the form of shorter responses predicted lower generalized distress and better physical health over time."

What's important, Silver suggests, is choice - letting people decide for themselves whether they want to talk about what just happened to them. If therapists do rush in to help, they should be careful not to impose their help on people who may not want it. People should not be obligated to participate in interventions; it should be their choice.

In her talk, Silver recounted the story of school officials who proudly announced, in the wake of a school shooting, that there would be counselors in every classroom when the students returned. Silver had concerns about that. Perhaps the students who were coping well - and yes, some people can cope successfully and on their own in response to horrors - would worry that there was something wrong with them because they did not feel the need to talk.

Of course, there is plenty of evidence that talk therapy can be a good thing. With regard to traumas, though, it depends on the person, and generally, it is more likely to be successful if it happens long after the trauma, and not in the immediate aftermath.

My strained link to the topic of singles? Don't let the conventional wisdom push you around. Do what is healthiest and most constructive for you.

Finally, a caveat: I have no specific professional expertise in the study of trauma. Roxane Silver's long list of amazing papers is the place to go for a more detailed understanding.

The Good in Feeling Bad