Disasters make us want to talk. We talk to share information and compare notes, for the feeling of belonging, and to make sense of things. But what happens, as with the COVID-19 crisis, when everyone is dealing with the same bad event simultaneously, when we seek out listeners to hear our concerns, but also are asked to hear others’ distressing tales?
My colleague James Pennebaker and I explored this question with the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1990 Persian Gulf War. During what we called the “Inhibition Phase,” roughly two to six weeks after the quake and war, people thought often about these events but talked much less. During this time psychological problems flourished. People reported more illness, disaster-related bad dreams, and conflicts with family, friends, and co-workers. Most concerning, aggravated assaults increased.
Why were people thinking much but talking little? T-shirts appearing after the quake provided a clue. They read: “Thank you for not sharing your earthquake experience with me.” Exhausted by disaster-related stories, people were signaling, “Enough…keep it to yourself.” A stoicism norm may have prevented people from sharing. But people need, physically and mentally, to express their disturbing thoughts and feelings.
More than 1,000 controlled experiments confirm the benefits of disclosure. In these studies people write about a major bad event for 15 to 20 minutes, one or more times. Those allowed to freely express their thoughts and feelings, compared to those who cannot, show modest but consistent improvements in physician visits, immune functioning, depression, and other health markers. Disclosure also improves memory and academic performance. Studies in my lab show the social benefits of disclosure; it promotes forgiveness, reduces victim blaming, and attunes our attention to another’s distress.
Disclosure seems to work by supplying meaning; not that it explains ultimate causes. Instead, disclosing thoughts and feelings helps us adjust our often-comforting beliefs about the world and about ourselves to hard new realities. By helping us accept difficult truths, disclosure allows us to move forward. That explains why confiding to a therapist, a friend, or even a blank notepad can feel uplifting.
Today, all of us are facing a collective challenge. Unlike the quake or war, however, COVID-19 is isolating and deprives us of the primal comfort of affiliation and easy opportunities to disclose. It requires that we self-quarantine and practice “socially distancing.” Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois might enjoy the kindness of strangers—we can’t.
This isolation is necessary. It slows the virus’s spread and saves lives. But it also presents an unusual challenge. How will we, all together yet all alone, emotionally cope with COVID-19? Our disaster research and related research on coping provide clues:
1. Disclosing: Ask listeners if they are willing to listen and let “not now” be acceptable. Let listeners know what you want from them, which is often to just hear you out, without trying to fix things. Thank listeners. And, finally, be forgiving if the listening you get is not exactly what you want. Empathic listening is hard to do.
2. Listening: Try to listen without judging or advising, but instead validate feelings and convey understanding. In contrast, telling speakers what to think and what to feel typically makes them feel inept, unworthy, and unheard.
3. Journaling: Disclosing thoughts and feelings through writing can be remarkably therapeutic. You don’t need to worry about what you say or how or when you say it.
4. Crisis hotlines: Crisis hotlines provide trained listeners to whom you can fully unburden yourself. Some people feel hesitant opening up to a stranger. The anonymity, however, can itself be liberating.
5. Soothe the psyche: Calm anxiety with mental comfort food. Music, art, literature, and movies can relieve stressed psyches. Nature, too, with its organic order, can be restorative. Humor also can be a potent medicine.
We are in uncharted waters with COVID-19, which many of us are forced to navigate alone. Our heightened emotions can feel like an added burden. They are not. When freely put into words, through conversation or in writing, our thoughts and feelings work together and give clarity and direction. They can connect us with ourselves, which is sometimes the best company we can keep.
Kent Harber is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University–Newark.