In a new research study, participants who had all experienced either the train attack in Madrid or the 9/11 attacks in New York City who used more words that described their thoughts, emotions, and the causes of the attacks, and more positive words, recovered better from their shock than other participants. The researchers say that the Spaniards and the Americans who experienced those terrorist attacks underwent similar psychological processes in recovery. The study points to the therapeutic value of expressive writing as a beneficial tool for recovery from shock from about eight weeks following a traumatic event and, perhaps, for an unknown period forward from eight weeks.
The study looked at pronouns used, and emotions, thinking, and social interactions expressed, in the writings. Three hundred and twenty-five participants were from the US and 333 were from Spain. Some differences were noted in the use of pronouns and social interactions between writings from the two countries, although feelings about the events were quite similar. For example, the use of “we” and greater attention to the social milieu were apparent in writings of participants from the more collectivist culture of Spain. Participants from the more individualistic culture of the US tended to use “I” language more frequently, an indicator of greater concern about what they had personally experienced. Yet, the importance to better recovery of sharing the experience with others appeared to be the same for both groups. The cognitive processes and phases for overcoming shock seemed very similar. Depression and major depression were about the same between the two study groups too, and at expected rates after such events.
Three phases are described; emergency, inhibition and adaptation. Although the study used a descriptive survey, rather than a randomized control research method, the findings still appear to provide potential directions for further research. Such research might help us to better understand and respond to potential PTSD victims.
Further, they say, “Writing about traumatic events could be an adaptive strategy.” They reference other research indicating that this is often the case. Integration and adaptation were more apparent at eight weeks after the terrorist attack experiences, but the researchers did not look specifically at how much longer expressive writing might have been helpful. “Accounts that explain what happened, that emphasize the positive (personal growth and improved relations with others–as positive responses to the trauma) and that accept negative emotions without repressing them but without overly stressing them, are beneficial accounts” (Fernández, Páez & Pennebaker, 2009). Positive responses might include gratefulness at being alive or being glad of caring by family and friends afterwards.
- Fernández, I, Páez, D and Pennebaker, JW. Comparison of expressive writing after the terrorist attacks of September 11th and March 11th. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, Vol. 9, Nº 1, pp.89-103, 2009, from Internet source at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090311120435.htm
© Copyright 2009 by Jolyn Wells-Moran, PhD, MSW, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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