The idea that clients should be encouraged to express strong emotion regarding the traumas they have suffered is widely assumed. This paper asks whether the empirical literature supports the underlying assumption that emotional expression leads to positive outcomes (better health and dissipation of distress). Studies in which individuals who have been given an opportunity to express emotions about past traumas are compared with subjects placed in appropriate control conditions are reviewed. The empirical literature suggests that eliciting emotion is harmful when it is not associated with reappraisal of past trauma, but helpful when the reappraisal occurs. The following guideline emerges: if trauma is to be revisited, it should be accompanied by reappraisal. Since this is sometimes difficult to engineer, alternative approaches for working with victims of trauma, not involving revisiting the trauma, are offered. Additionally, it is suggested that it can be helpful to identify the nature of the problem arising from the traumatic experience, and then provide therapeutic intervention that addresses the problem.
Littrell, J. (2009). Expression of emotion: When it causes trauma and when it helps. Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work, 6(3), 300-320. doi: 10.1080/15433710802686922
This article was originally published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work. Copyright © 2009, Taylor & Francis.
The author's pre-print (pre-refereed) article is posted here with the permission of the author.