“Isn’t personal conversation with girlfriends a good thing?” asks Washington Post Staff Writer Laura Sessions Stepp in a past story, “Enough Talk, Already.”
Yes and no.
This is what she found out:
Social scientists are realizing that while talking may strengthen female friendships and leave pals feeling temporarily better, it can also lead to increased anxiety and depression if perspective and problem-solving aren’t included rather quickly. And what about the husband who listens every night to his wife complain about her job, then one morning at breakfast offers her steps to get out of her funk? Perhaps he deserves credit rather than having a cup of coffee thrown at him.
“There’s a distinction between healthy catharsis and unhealthy rumination,” says Alice Rubenstein, a clinical psychologist in Rochester, N.Y. “Catharsis is a form of venting, of not leaving stuff inside.” When it turns into rumination with others, she says, “it becomes contagious. You have a sinking ship, and rather than bailing water, you’re making more holes in the ship.”
Amanda Rose, an associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri at Columbia, discovered this when she surveyed about 800 boys and girls, ages 8 to 15, twice over six months, attempting to assess depression, anxiety and friendship quality. Rose and her colleagues found that both boys and girls reported drawing closer to their self-identified best friends. But girls also demonstrated symptoms of increased anxiety and depression as their friendships deepened. Boys showed no such symptoms. When she repeated the study on college students, she got the same results.
Advances in the science of the brain help explain this. According to Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco, the female brain picks up emotional cues, both verbal and nonverbal, more quickly than the male brain. Starting at about age 12, girls put feelings into words more efficiently than boys. The key thing, though, according to Brizendine, author of the controversial book “The Female Brain,” is this: Brains learn by repetition. Repeating negative thoughts can make not only the injured party but those around her more, rather than less, distressed and angry.