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Don't feel pressure to speak after trauma

After the crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, people gathered to mourn during church services, dropped off food at the local firehouse and flowers at an impromptu memorial, and discussed the incident in groups on Facebook pages, Web chats and local radio talk shows.

And almost everyone discussed their feelings privately, with friends, family, acquaintances and strangers.

People who have suffered the shock of a collective trauma -- a traumatic event in which they have not been personally affected, but share the grief and loss of the community -- can benefit from such opportunities, says Mark D. Seery, an assistant professor in UB's Department of Psychology. But no one should feel pressured to talk, in public or in private, when they don't want to, he warns.

There's an old myth of coping, often heard when a community experiences the kind of shock that followed the plane crash, said Seery, that everyone must air their feelings or risk having them surface in damaging ways later in life. "Pop psychologists show up on TV and they say, 'This is how it is for everyone,' " said Seery.

After the 2007 Virginia Tech slayings, a doctor who was a guest on the "Today" show said, "The more [students] can talk about what they've lived through, the more they can be encouraged to emote, that gives them some security and insulation against burying those feelings and then having they surprise them later in life."

This myth, that unexpressed feelings can "surprise them later in life," is so pervasive that people who choose not to express their feelings might be pressured to do so, Seery said.

"Other people might be looking at someone and saying, 'Why don't you want to talk about this? There must be something wrong with you,' " he said. "That's one of the real dangers in this sort of situation."

"'Unique' is the key word," said Russell Friedman, a co-author of the "The Grief Recovery Handbook, 20th anniversary expanded edition." "Every one of us is unique, and we have a unique relationship to loss. We have to move away completely from the idea that there is an absolute truth for each person that relates to whether they talk, when they talk, who they talk to or what the impact would be."

Friedman and his co-author, John W. James, are the founders of the Grief Recovery Institute. On the Institute's Web site, www.grief.net, Friedman contests the long-held theory that there are defined stages of grief that affect every person the same way.

Seery drew the conclusions in the paper he wrote after a unique group of data was collected immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Knowledge Network Inc., an online survey research company, has nationally representative consumer panels set up at all times.

Within hours of the attacks on Sept. 11, 36,000 people who were on the survey panels were sent this email: "If you would like, please share your thoughts on the shocking events of today."

Of the 36,000 people who received the email, 19,593 opened it and 13,958 responded, writing anything from a few words to many sentences.

People who responded, and those who didn't, as well as those who wrote a lot and those who wrote just a little, were then studied for symptoms of acute stress, including, said Seery, "sleep problems, problems with personal relationships." They were asked to report those symptoms two weeks after Sept. 11, then at regular intervals over the next two years.

Compared with people who did not respond, the people who did respond, according to the paper, "exhibited worse mental health outcomes."

"Rather than indicating pathology," said the study, "reluctance to express appeared to reflect resilience," or "better long-term adjustment."

"It's actually relatively common for people to be resilient," said Seery. "The coping strategies that people use on their own, the things that feel good to them, most of the time, that works pretty well and people are OK. In a minority of cases do people need professional help. So none of this is to say that professional therapy can't be very helpful to people -- that's not our point at all. But that doesn't mean that the same therapeutic techniques are helpful for everyone in all situations."

Recently it has become more common for first responders, including police and firefighters, to be required to participate in Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, where they are expected to express their feelings, Seery said.

But recent research that shows that "this technique doesn't always help people, and in fact, there's some evidence that it can be hurtful for some people," Seery said.

"Quite possibly, people who don't want to talk are being compelled to, or even if they don't want to talk, they may be second-guessing themselves and wondering why they don't want to talk."

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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