A new study has analysed the expressive writing of terrorism victims to analyse their psychosocial processes following the terrorist attacks in New York and Madrid. Despite the cultural differences of the people involved, the results show that the feelings and thoughts experienced following this type of traumatic event are universal.
The people who experienced the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and the March 11 2004 train attacks in Madrid needed to be able to express their feelings, thoughts and emotions. The aim of the study published in the International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology was to compare how people from both nations reacted to such violent acts through expressive writing.
"After the Madrid attacks we were unfortunate enough to be able to ask people who had lived through this experience, either directly or indirectly, what they thought and how they felt following the terrorist attacks," Itziar Fernández, the study's author and a professor at the National University of Distance Education (UNED), told SINC.
"Following the attacks, there was a great fear that people would be affected by post-traumatic stress disorder. In the end, however, although they were in shock, people were able to deal with had happened and adapt to the situation," says the researcher.
Based on the comments recorded by 325 people living in the United States and 333 in Spain, the researcher and her team looked into how both groups put their feelings and thoughts into words.
A linguistic analysis of the texts, carried out by using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) programme, showed that the victims who benefited most from recording the traumatic events were those who use more cognitive words (introspective and causal ones), use a high number of positive emotional words, and changed the use of pronouns and references to themselves.
The results show that feelings about the events (anger, impotence, fear) were similar between the two countries during a period between the third and eighth weeks after the attacks, both inclusive.
However, the data collected does show a significant difference. "While the Americans had a more individualistic view of events, the Spaniards talked more about social processes." For example, there were not the same enormous public demonstrations following September 11 as there were following the attacks in Spain.
The study concludes that writing about a traumatic event can have positive effects over the medium term (from two months afterwards). Although the participants' symptoms worsened over the short term (relating an event makes people relive it, and worsens their negative emotions), they felt better and paid less visits to the doctor over the medium and long term.
The effect was the opposite in the case of excessive consumption of media coverage of such an event, however. Data about news consumption throughout the population following the attacks showed that, over the long term (two months after the Madrid attacks), people who were repetitively viewing images of the attacks felt worse than those who rarely watched the television.
Tackling post-traumatic stress
The benefits of talking about traumatic events forms part of cultural belief systems. Therapists always seek to make people reconstruct a narrative and a testimony about what has happened. They are asked to talk about their lives before the traumatic event, and to reconstruct images and their sensations and feelings in order to give them meaning (why and how the event took place).
The first studies of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were conducted following the Vietnam War (1958-1975). It is a psychological illness classified within the group of anxiety disorders, which arises as a result of exposure to a traumatic event involving physical harm.
PTSD, which is diagnosed two months after a stressful life event, is a severe emotional reaction. It is characterised by symptoms such as loss of appetite, sadness and disturbed sleep, and lasts for more than two months after the event.
- Itziar Fernández, Darío Páez y James W. Pennebaker. 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
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