Public Release: 

Expressing yourself isn't always ideal

Association for Psychological Science

For years, the advice of psychologists and mothers alike has been to express your emotions in order to achieve a balanced mental state. This might bring up some problems when your anxiety is going to make that presentation look shoddy, but hey, it's better to show emotions than be like Spock, right?

Not quite. A new hypothesis on the issue of emotional expression is that we're actually better off being flexible about how much we show our feelings - neither letting it all out nor keeping it all in.

In order to test this hypothesis, George Bonanno of Columbia University's Teachers College compared college students' distress to their ability to control their expression of emotions in a study to be published in the July issue of Psychological Science, a publication of the American Psychological Society. Soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks, he measured New York City college freshmen's psychological distress at the attacks as well as the transition to college life, and had them participate in a procedure that had them demonstrate heightened, suppressed, and normal levels of emotion. A year and a half later, the subjects came back and Bonanno once again measured their distress.

Bonanno found that the students who were the least distressed after one and a half years were the same students who were able to both express and suppress their emotions on command. He also found these students to be better adjusted.

So maybe a little bit of suppression is healthy once in a while, just like a little bit of emoting is healthy once in a while. The key, according to Bonanno's study, is to know when to let it show.

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For more information, contact Bonanno at gab38@columbia.edu or for a complete copy of the article, visit the APS Media Center at www.psychologicalscience.org/media.

Psychological Science is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information. The American Psychological Society represents psychologists advocating science-based research in the public's interest.

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