Why talking about your problems sometimes helps

Why talking about your problems sometimes helps

The author of the article “Why it is better to remain silent about your problems” concludes based on two studies that it does not help to vent to your friends and that you risk that they will distance themselves from you if you talk to them about your problems and your difficulties. He adds that a well-trained psychologist will help people “distance themselves from their emotions” rather than empathize for a very long time. As well-trained psychologists, we have reservations about this.

A broader look at the studies mentioned

Vicary and Fraley’s research, one of the studies on which the article is based, focuses on the effects of online grief sharing and support on depressive symptoms and post-traumatic stress in students after a shooting at their college on selected social media platforms. The researchers found that nearly 75 percent of youth surveyed in schools where the shooting occurred were still suffering from psychological complaints two and six weeks after the attack. No comparative study has been conducted on young people who did or did not share their experiences and complaints online. There has also been no empirical research in which half of young people were asked to talk about their online experiences and the other half were not asked to do so. Therefore, no conclusion can be drawn about the effects of sharing or not sharing experiences after a traumatic experience. The researchers noted only that many young people were still suffering from complaints after six weeks. The dramatic improvement in trauma processing would have been very surprising in such a short time. Moreover, the research question revolves around the impact of this Connected Share such experiences related to mental health, in messages or on the Facebook wall (where a number of questions can already be asked). Therefore, the study says nothing about conversations in which a young person talks to another trusted person and is listened to, acknowledged and comforted. Hence it is not about talking to the people around you when you are feeling down or not.

In the second study mentioned, Siri and his colleagues examined the effects of comment exchanges immediately after the 2001 attacks in New York. The results showed that people who did not choose to share their initial thoughts about events online were less likely to suffer from long-term mental and physical problems. Here we explain two problems in interpreting these results in the article “Why it is better to remain silent about your problems,” which concludes that it is indeed better to remain silent about your problems.

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First, there may be selection bias here. Participants in Siri’s study were asked to share their thoughts about the horrific events of September 11 if they wished, and to decide for themselves whether to do so. So it is very likely that people who are more vulnerable to the impact of traumatic events also naturally began to share more on that platform. They may have experienced more distress even without sharing their thoughts. An alternative hypothesis is that people with low social support, a known risk factor for long-term problems resulting from traumatic experiences (Witt, Sachser, & Fegert, 2024), would be more likely to share their experience on an online platform. Again, no empirical study has been conducted to test whether sharing ideas leads to more or fewer complaints in the long run. Second, Seery and colleagues’ research focuses specifically on sharing thoughts about a traumatic experience Very soon after the event. This means that the engagement took place during a period of time when the situation was still unclear and threatening. The authors themselves write that there is strong scientific support for expressing thoughts and feelings about difficult experiences later. The study revolves around the timing of sharing such experiences, and this timing is crucial.

The importance of timing and coordination

“Talking about” cannot be considered completely beneficial or harmful. It is therefore not possible to provide a correct generalized statement.

There are many different factors to take into consideration, such as when You talk about your experiences and what exactly “speaking” means. There is a big difference between getting stuck repeating facts that makes you feel anxious, and talking constructively about your problems. To understand what an appropriate and harmonious response to the destabilizing effects of a traumatic event might be, we take a moment to consider the processes (neurological and physiological) that support its processing. Processing difficult experiences requires integrating this experience into the overall experiences in a person’s life. When such experiences are “processed”, one can look back at the memory without being overwhelmed by the fears and other feelings that the experience initially provoked. This integration process takes time, and is unlikely to occur shortly after a traumatic experience.

Integrating new experiences is a function of the prefrontal cortex. When one experiences too much stress in the body, other parts of the brain take over and responses are activated in the service of survival (fight and flight). Therefore, this person’s stress level is not within the window within which treatment can take place. When “talking about” leads to a state of Hyperexcitability With dysregulation of the nervous system, there is a risk that people will end up in an irregular physiological state. In this case, it is advisable to distract attention from the traumatic event and focus on things that calm the nervous system. Therefore, the problem does not lie in the coping mechanism (talking to others), but in the overload on the nervous system. Choosing to temporarily shift attention to something that feels stable is not the same as systematically pushing away feelings and thoughts or avoiding speaking. This is why psychotherapy carefully considers the timing of therapeutic interventions. Talking up and asking for support from a significant other can be a powerful and very helpful coping mechanism when done in doses and tailored to the person’s experience and stress level. The presence and support of the other often has a regulatory effect.

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Harmony cannot happen if you follow a general rule of what helps and what does not help when someone is faced with something dangerous. This way you take away someone’s control over the situation, which is one of the oppressive experiences one has during a traumatic event.

Talk to others about your problems (and how this strengthens relationships)

The author of the book “Why it is better to be silent about your problems” concludes based on the two studies mentioned above, on the one hand, that it is better to remain silent about your problems, and on the other hand, that it will burden you. Friends if you don’t.

However, there is a lot of scientific research that shows just the opposite. As early as the 1980s, researchers showed that psychotherapy is useful in reducing stress, physical and emotional complaints, and even has a boosting effect on the immune system (Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser, 1988). So sharing your difficult experiences and feelings with someone else who is trying to understand you and is there for you can be very healing. This is due to the interaction between different mechanisms. For example, emotion labeling reduces activation in the amygdala (our brain’s “alarm system” that activates our survival responses when we perceive danger) and increases activation of stress-regulating areas of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex. These mechanisms help us understand our emotions and give meaning to experience.

Talking to someone we trust who responds empathically also has a calming effect on our brain and body, allowing the activation level of our nervous system to move to a level where we can regulate ourselves. By not talking about a traumatic event, one risks a discrepancy between what one thinks on an explicit level and what one feels and experiences on an implicit level (physiological stress). By linking implicit stress processes to our explicit memories, we stimulate “emotional awareness” (Lin, 2009). This is important for us to be aware of our feelings, what makes us stressed and what makes us calm, as well as their effect on the body. According to research, the most effective way to activate and strengthen this connection between explicit and implicit memory is to talk to people who can be regulated.

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The author also believes that talking about your problems with a friend will harm your friendship. Obviously, a friendship becomes imbalanced if one party talks all the time and the other is never allowed to say anything. However, this caricature ignores the longevity of many friendships. It’s also a very narrow view of what reciprocity means in a relationship. Over time, there will be times when one person leans more toward the other in a friendship, and vice versa. Sometimes you are the one who needs support and a listening ear, but later you may be the one who stands by the other person’s side. It is precisely this diversity that ensures increased trust throughout the friendship. Telling things about yourself, especially difficult things, gives your friend the opportunity to get to know you better and develop more empathy and compassion. It gives the friend a signal that the friendship is safe, and that they can also contact you in the future. It also tells that friend that they are important, worthy of your trust, and that you believe in their skills in dealing with difficult emotions. By entrusting someone with what is bothering you, you not only get the opportunity for support, but you also give them a lot more: appreciation, trust, and the opportunity for the other person to be important to you. And meaning something to others is one of the most existential human needs. This has already been confirmed by previous philosophers such as Hegel and Levinas. Not without reason.

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