Emotional Intelligence, Trauma Severity, and Emotional Expression


The occurrence of traumatic events has been found to be consistently high in a general population, across the lifespan, with varied prevalence rates from approximately 39% to 69%.1–4 Although exposure to traumatic events does not necessarily lead to the development and diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, its effects on mental and physical health, as well as quality of life have been well documented.4,5 As a result, much effort has been devoted to the understanding of recovery from exposure to traumatic events. Recent studies have shown religion to be an important concept in understanding adaptation to psychological trauma.

Religion and Trauma

Religion and spirituality, which involve beliefs, practices, and social connections, have been implicated in the process of adaptation to negative life events, and turning to religion has been reported as a common response to adversity.6–9 Previous research on trauma adaptation using Pennebaker’ s written emotional expression paradigm10 appears to suggest that religion can act as a source from which psychological well-being may be derived during the process of writing about traumatic experience.

11,12 However, the association between religious emotional expression and adaptation to psychological trauma may be moderated by other important variables, such as gender and trauma severity,11 or other closely related constructs, such as emotional intelligence (EI). It is possible that individuals’ levels of EI may affect the extent to which they can benefit from written emotional expression following exposure to a traumatic event.

EI and Religion

EI is a dispositional characteristic involving an individual’s ability to understand, accurately perceive, express, and regulate emotions.

13 The association between EI and religion may be characterized by some unexpected and inconsistent findings. While Pizarro and Salovey14 suggested that religious systems are usually “inherently emotionally intelligent,” and that due to the roles that they play, religious leaders may be better at emotional regulation than others, more recent studies have reported the contrary. The few studies that have examined the relationship between EI and religious leaders have consistently shown religious leaders to register lower EI than others.15–17

Other studies have found EI to be differentially related to various aspects of religion. For example, EI has been found to be positively associated with only intrinsic religious orientation, while its association with extrinsic religious orientation is mixed.17–19 In addition, Pashang and Singh20 reported that when confronted with adverse events, low EI was associated with using religion as a coping strategy.

EI and Trauma Adaptation

Previous research has shown a negative association between EI and various indicators of mental health following exposure to traumatic events.21–24 More recently, studies have examined EI as a potential mediating and moderating variable in its relationship with other trauma-related constructs and outcomes.25,26 Specifically, Linley et al.25 examined EI as a moderator for the relationship between emotional expression and growth following adversity. In addition to a main effect of EI on growth, the study results showed a three-way interaction among EI, gender, and emotional expression. The two-way interaction between EI and emotional expression was only significant among male participants: For high-EI participants, higher emotional expression was associated with greater growth and lower emotional expression was associated with lesser growth; conversely, for low-EI participants, lower emotional expression was associated with greater growth and higher emotional expression was associated with lesser growth. This interaction is only significant among male, and not female participants.

The current study sought to examine EI as a moderator for the association between emotional expression and adaptive trauma processing, as measured by depressive symptoms. Using Pennebaker’s written emotional expression paradigm, we hypothesized that EI would have differential effects on depressive symptoms, after participants repeatedly wrote about their traumatic experience from a religious versus conventional perspective. Specifically, we expected to find (1) a main effect of EI, such that participants with lower EI would benefit more from expressive writing in general, than those with higher EI; and (2) this main effect would be significantly more pronounced in the religious expressive writing group than it is for the conventional writing group, i.e., an interaction between EI and writing condition (religious vs. conventional) on depressive symptoms.



Participants were college students from National Central University in Taiwan. Students must be at least 18 years of age to participate in the study, and they could choose to receive course extra credit or money reward for participating in this study. All of the participants completed both baseline (Time 1) and follow-up (Time 2) assessments. The final sample included 105 students (48 male, 57 male), and their average age was 20.7 years (SD = 3.47). Fifty-three participants (21 male, 32 female) were assigned to conventional trauma-writing condition (CTC) and 52 (27 male, 25 female) were assigned to religious trauma-writing condition (RTC).


Students were recruited to sign up for a “Personal Story” study. After signing the consent form, participants completed baseline measures (Time 1). Then, they were escorted to a private room and given instructions specific to their experimental condition.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: CTC or RTC condition. Participants in the CTC received the traditional trauma-writing instructions,27 asking that they write about the most traumatic experience of their life. In addition to receiving conventional instructions, participants in the RTC were asked to write about their traumatic experience from a religious or spiritual perspective that best reflected their own beliefs about God, religion, or spirituality.28 We believe these instructions would effectively accommodate individuals with various degrees of religiousness, from not at all religious to the very religious. For the nonreligious, these instructions would still encourage participants to take a different perspective in processing their traumatic experience, and thus possibly facilitate trauma adaptation.

Participants were required to attend a total of three writing sessions within a seven-day period, with no more than one session per day. Approximately one month after the third session, students returned to complete a follow-up assessment (Time 2).


Depressive Symptoms

The Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II)29 was used to measure depressive symptoms. It is a 21-item, self-report rating inventory that measures characteristic attitudes and symptoms of depression. Participants were asked to pick out the one statement in each item, which is rated on a four-point scale, ranging from 0 to 3, that best described the way they had been feeling during the past two weeks, including the day they completed the questionnaire. Scoring of the BDI-II is adding up the score for each of the 21 items, higher scores would indicate more depressive symptoms. Reliability was high for BDI-II in the current sample (α = .85). It was administered on the first day of the experiment (Time 1) and again at one-month follow-up (Time 2).

Emotional Intelligence

EI was measured using the Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire—Short Form (TEIQue-SF).30,31 This consists of 30 items designed to measure global trait EI and assesses individual’s self-perceptions of his/her emotional abilities. The TEIQue-SF uses a Likert-type style response option format, ranging from 1 (Completely Disagree) to 7 (Completely Agree), with higher scores indicating higher EQ. In the current study, TEIQue-SF has high reliability (α = .88) and was administered on the first day of experiment (Time 1), and again at one-month follow-up (Time 2).


A self-rated level of religiousness was assessed using a single-item that asked participants to respond to the question: “How religious are you?” Participants responded on a five-point scale, where 1 = “not at all” and 5 = “extremely.” The religiousness item was administered on the first day (Time 1) of experiment and was used as a controlling variable.

Trauma Severity

The Impact of Event Scale—Revised IES-R32 was used to assess trauma severity. This is a self-report questionnaire that has 22 questions. This tool is an appropriate instrument to measure the subjective distress in response to a specific traumatic event.33 Participants were asked to report the degree of distress experienced for each item in the past seven days. Items are rated on a five-point scale: 0 = “not at all,” 1 = “a little bit,” 2 = “moderately,” 3 = “quite a bit,” 4 = “extremely,” with higher scores indicating greater distress. In the current sample, the IES-R has high reliability (α = .94). This was administered on the first day of experiment (Time 1) and was used as a controlling variable.

Demographic and Background

Participants were asked to indicate their age and gender, as well as the approximate month and year during which the traumatic event occurred. Date of trauma occurrence was used to compute time lapsed since trauma, which is calculated by taking the difference between self-reported date of trauma occurrence and date of first day of writing (Time 1). These variables were used as controlling variables in the analyses.


Random Assignment and Manipulation Check

A one-way analysis of variance was conducted on all baseline measures of the main study variables to assess the effectiveness of random assignment. This included age, gender, trauma severity, religiousness, time lapsed since trauma, baseline depressive symptoms, trauma severity, and EI. As expected, no significant differences were found among the experimental conditions for any of these variables at baseline (ps > .07).

The effectiveness of our study manipulation was evaluated by examining whether RTC participants used a higher percentage of religious words in their writing than CTC participants. As expected, results showed a significant difference between RTC and CTC participants in the percentage of religious words used in their writings, F(1, 101) = 8.64, p  .24).

In three-way interactions, we examined the interactions among experimental condition and the previously described two-way interactions. This analysis revealed a significant interaction among TEIQue-SF, IES-R, and experimental condition (β = .418, p  .20). For participants in the RTC only, there was a significant difference between low versus high EI in T2 depressive symptoms, for those with more severe trauma. Specifically, participants with more severe trauma who were high on trauma severity and low on EI registered fewer depressive symptoms at T2 than those who were high on EI. This interaction was not significant for participants in the CTC.


In this study, we sought to investigate EI and its associations with religion, emotional expression, and trauma adaptation. Results did not show a significant association between EI and religiousness at baseline. Also, contrary to our expectations, no main effect of EI was found on depressive symptoms at follow-up, and neither was a two-way interaction found between EI and writing condition. However, results revealed a three-way interaction among EI, trauma severity, and writing condition on depressive symptoms at follow-up. For the religious writing condition only, there was a significant difference between high- versus low-EI participants who experienced more severe trauma in depressive symptoms at follow-up, such that low-EI participants registered less depressive symptoms than high-EI participants; while there was no significant difference between low versus high EI for participants with less severe trauma.

First, the effects found in this study were concentrated on more severe trauma. The expected two-way interaction between EI and writing condition, specifically, the hypothesis that participants with lower EI would benefit more from religious writing than their high EI counterparts, was found only among those who registered severe trauma. The religious writing process was associated with fewer depressive symptoms at follow-up for individuals with lower EI. Considering EI as a dispositional characteristic involving an individual’s ability to understand, accurately perceive, express, and regulate emotion, it is possible that the conventional writing instructions, which ask participants to express emotions, would have limited effects on those with low EI. The religious writing instructions, however, asked participants to tray and adopt a different perspective in writing about their experience. Processing severe traumatic experience from a different perspective may be beneficial particularly for individuals who find it a challenge to experience or express emotions, i.e., those with low EI. Previous studies have found that having participants write from a third-person perspective was associated with less emotional expression in the writings, but more positive emotions post writing.35,36 Additional studies are needed in order to decipher possible differential effects between religion or spirituality and perspective taking on adaptive trauma processing.

Also, this study adds to the scarce literature on religion and EI. Religion has a long history serving as important resources for those who encounter adversity or suffering, and it is often thought of as a safe place for the more vulnerable.37 It is conceivable that disadvantaged individuals, those with less resources, tend to turn to religion for help, and religion in turn does offer ways of adaptive coping, such as social support or different perspectives. As previously mentioned, the limited research on EI and religion has shown a negative association between EI and religious leaders.


Several factors qualify the findings of this study. A practical consideration concerns the potential application of religiously framed written emotional expression in the general population or among medical patients. We found no evidence that its impact was restricted to the more religious college students in our sample, and there were no untoward effects of either experimental treatment. Nonetheless, it is possible that RTC would be ineffective, or even provoke negative reactions, in some individuals, if administered in more heterogeneous samples.

Another concern is studying EI and religion without other closely related constructs, such as social support. Social support is an important psychosocial variable that has been found to be associated with both EI and religion in previous research.38,39 A larger sample size or a series of systematic studies may be required in order to properly examine the potentially complex and dynamic relationships among EI, emotional expression, religion, and other possible mediating and moderating variables.


Religious and spiritual beliefs may act as a resource from which individuals derive meaning from psychological trauma. It appears that religious emotional expression may encourage adaptive trauma processing, especially for individuals with low EI, who have experienced severe trauma. Future studies replicating and expanding the current study may be integrated within interventions aimed at reducing the negative effects of trauma and better inform this line of investigation.

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