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Are You Able to Express Your Emotions?

Become aware of your attitudes towards emotional expression

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is caused by a traumatic event, right?

Well actually no. Not everyone develops PTSD after a traumatic event. Research shows that a traumatic event is necessary but it’s not always sufficient to produce PTSD. Often it is the other factors in a person’s life such as a lack of social support that tips the balance into PTSD.

For people who have experienced a trauma and those who care for them it is useful to know this. There are things that we can do.

The most important thing is to make sure that our social support systems are working, and that we are talking things through with people who care about us, letting people know if we need help and being receptive to emotional support if it is offered. One barrier to seeking help is our attitude toward emotional expression.

Read each of the following statements and rate how much you agree with each on a five point scale where 1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree.

1. I think you should always keep your feelings under control.

2. I think you ought not to burden other people with your problems.

3. I think getting emotional is a sign of weakness.

4. I think other people don’t understand your feelings.

Adding up your scores, the lowest you can score is 4 and the highest is 20. There are no right or wrong answers but where you fall between 5 and 20 may help you to reflect on how you seek help and cope emotionally. Those at the higher end of the scale with scores of over 12, and particularly those with scores over 16, are likely to have more rigid views on emotional expression and to be less flexible in how they cope with emotional difficulties.

My colleagues and I originally developed this questionnaire for use in our studies with survivors of disaster. We found that those with higher scores indicating more negative and rigid attitudes tended to also score higher on measures of posttraumatic distress.

Later research with car accident victims found that negative attitudes to emotional expression at 1 week to predict intrusive symptoms and diagnosis at 6 weeks. Other research investigated attitudes to emotional in new parents finding that those with more positive attitudes towards emotional expression reported significantly higher social support.

Being aware of your blocks to emotional expression may be helpful. Sometimes it is beneficial to talk to others and to be listened to.

Having a positive attitude toward emotional expression does not mean that you should always just pour your heart out. But it does mean that you have the flexibility to do so when you choose.

To find out more about my work:


Joseph, S., Dalgleish, T., Williams, R., Thrasher, S., Yule, W., & Hodgkinson, P. (1997). Attitudes towards emotional expression and post-traumatic stress in survivors of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 36, 133-138.

Nightingale, J., & Williams, R. (2000). Attitudes to emotional expression and personality in predicting post-traumatic stress disorder. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 39, 243-254.

Castle, H., Slade, P., Barranco‐Wadlow, M., & Rogers, M. (2008). Attitudes to emotional expression, social support and postnatal adjustment in new parents. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 26, 180-194.