Many counsellors see expression of emotion as an important part of the client’s therapy. The most beneficial area is the role of emotional expression in overcoming traumatic experiences. Research has shown that suppression of memories that arouse strong emotions can have a ‘boomerang’ effect – the suppressed thoughts enter consciousness with an even greater force. It has been shown that trauma victims who disclose their painful memories, although initially distraught, are significantly happier and healthier, several weeks afterwards. Disclosure may take several forms and even writing down an account of events has been shown to be beneficial, providing the account includes a reference to emotions.
However, in some cases it may not be beneficial for the client to express negative feelings. Expression of intense anger and rage may stimulate even more angry feelings, rather than dispel them. The counsellor should carefully assess each client and their situation when working with angry or aggressive feelings.
Social learning theory would hold that aggression is a learned response, and the more often it is reinforced, the more likely it is to recur. If, on the other hand, it is an innate response as maintained by psychodynamic theories, then its expression should be cathartic, and the intensity of aggressive feelings or acts ought to be reduced. There would seem to be more evidence to back the social learning account. Even when people express their aggression verbally, and then write down accounts, they are more likely to write aggressive accounts.
These findings do not necessarily mean that counsellors should discourage clients from expressing their anger. In fact, the expression of anger can in itself make the client feel better and more empowered. Also, expression of anger might serve to desensitise individuals who are afraid of their own anger. In addition, facial feedback of anger has been shown to increase subjective feelings of anger. This in itself could be a useful form of therapy when dealing with clients who have problems expressing their feelings, or who experience low emotional intensity. Obviously, there will be instances where a client has experienced anger may have done so because they have misconstrued what someone has said. It would be far better to examine faulty cognitions rather than encourage such clients to express their anger.