I once attended a Jungian workshop and found myself uncharacteristically emoting in front of a roomful of strangers. In retrospect I was probably just acting out what was expected of me as I usually have a rather British ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude to expressing feelings. I recognize, however, that this attitude has long since been on its way out, having received a virtual knock-out blow from the death of Princess Diana in 1997. After this virtually everyone became convinced that the way to get rid of anxiety was to talk about one’s feelings. Now, I’m all for talking about stuff, but personally, when it comes to traumatic events, I think bottling things up and repressing one’s feelings is often a much better idea. Think about it. Why would you want to relive painful experiences and unpleasant emotions? Surely it’s much better to try and forget them as soon as possible.
There is some evidence to support this view. A study done by H.J. Eysenck in 1952 found that psychotherapy helped no more than the slow passing of time (the profession definitely wishes this one would go away). Following the events of September 11, 2001, some 9,000 therapists descended on the scene, more than three therapists for every victim. The result, according to trauma researcher and community psychologist, Richard Gist, is that counseling not only failed to help the survivors, but in some cases re-traumatized them. Dr. Karni Ginsburg, who led an Israeli study on 116 patients who received hospital treatment for a serious heart-attack and anxiety over their near-miss with death, concluded that “People who keep a stiff upper lip and do not dwell on their feelings tend to cope better with post-traumatic stress.”
Why might repression work? Some researchers have suggested that counseling by therapists could cut victims off from the everyday support of family and friends. Counseling may also make victims feel their reactions of shock and grief are abnormal because they need professional care, which may make it more difficult to get back to normal life. Furthermore, people who successfully repress don’t end up seeing a therapist. For all we know the repressors are actually the normal ones, effectively coping with the many tragedies of life by minimizing them, denying them or distracting themselves. The Stoics realized long ago that we should only be concerned about what we can control rather than what we can’t, and that much of our unhappiness is caused by confusing the two categories, thinking we have control over something which ultimately we do not. Possibly repressors are better at recognizing what they lack control over and so avoiding many of the negative emotions associated with traumatic events.
If you are uptight and anal retentive, a little therapy might do you good, but for the rest, faced with a traumatic event, just grit your teeth, lie down and think of England!
“It was part of war; men died, more would die, that was past, and what mattered now was the business in hand; those who lived would get on with it. Whatever sorrow was felt, there was no point in talking or brooding about it, much less in making, for form’s sake, a parade of it. Better and healthier to forget it, and look to tomorrow.
The celebrated British stiff upper lip, the resolve to conceal emotion which is not only embarrassing and useless, but harmful, is just plain common sense” ― George MacDonald Fraser, ‘Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II’