The ‘Talking Cure’

April 23, 2020
The ‘Talking Cure’

By talking about our experiences, we gain psychological and emotional mastery over the events we have experienced. In short, this is how we talk the cure. Barry Pokroy and Dave Stevens discuss the power of reorganization and restoration of our well being through conversation.


Maybe you’ve had this experience—someone thanks you for listening to them and you had no idea it was such a big deal. While you may not have realized you’d made an impact, your willingness to listen made all the difference to them. What they were feeling was the effect of the ‘talking cure’—the power of talking in the presence of someone who listens. 

The ‘talking cure’ was first coined in the 1880s. Joseph Breuer, an Austrian physician, discovered that the physical symptoms of one of his patients, Anna O., were actually psychosomatic and she was able to heal her symptoms by giving words to her emotional dimensions. Her physical symptoms disappeared after she understood where they originated and spoke about them, leading her to use the phrase the ‘talking cure’, describing it as an emotional chimney sweeping.

Why now?

COVID-19 is a global trauma on many levels—economic, social, familial, communal, and individual. There is no corner of the world unaffected and everything is uncertain. Plans and strategies have been shattered. Celebrations and holidays have been put on hold. And, as we try to make sense of what the future might look like, we find ourselves drowning in the internal chaos and disruption of the present, wishing for the stability of the past. What we do know is this;

  1. everyone is talking about COVID-19. In a few short weeks and months it has formed part of the global psyche
  2. for many, COVID-19 has compromised their inner resources and turned their lives upside down. This is what traumas do
  3. reorganization and restoration of our well being is not only possible but empowering, we just have to know how

That ‘how’ is the ‘talking cure’. By talking about our experiences, we gain psychological and emotional mastery over the events we have experienced.

The ‘talking cure’ through history

Between the American Civil War and World War II, many soldiers returned home displaying a number of physiological symptoms. The medical profession, however, struggled to understand the nature of these symptoms and how to cure them.

Physically, the soldiers didn’t present clear signs of illness other than an accelerated heartbeat. A major problem lay in the fact that soldiers returned home with a rule or ‘conspiracy of silence’; It was deemed inappropriate and cowardly for them to speak about their wartime experiences. These unexpressed traumas were then converted into physiological symptoms.

It wasn’t until the Vietnam War that the psychological profession classed these symptoms as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and introduced the ‘talking cure’ into the healing process. The thinking was, if soldiers talked about their experiences, they would connect with those experiences and being to restore their normality.

PTSD is the official diagnosis given for the severe and persistent symptoms that develop when someone has experienced or witnessed a situation that involves the possibility of death or serious injury, or who learns that a close family member or friend has experienced a similar situation. To be diagnosed with PTSD, the symptoms must continue for one month and must cause severe social and occupational impairment (i.e. the symptoms interfere with daily life).

PTSD is not to be confused with Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), which are the general symptoms any of us may experience after an intensely stressful situation like war. The difference between PTS and PTSD is in the duration and intensity of the symptoms. PTS is a normal and brief response to a traumatic event. PTSD is what could happen if these symptoms are left unchecked.

The way forward

COVID-19 has placed us on a battlefield of uncertainty, disruption, and chaos. We are experiencing multiple ruptures—our home lives feel scrambled, our work lives are disordered, and our inner resources are compromised. The heightened emotions that come with these ruptures place many people in the realm of PTS. As uncomfortable and difficult as these symptoms may feel, however, they are transitory—if we manage them effectively. Left unchecked, they could become more frequent and intense.

As parents, leaders, and individuals we are tasked with guiding our families and teams through this battlefield. While we may not have control over a chaotic and turbulent external world, we do have control of our inner resources.

To keep this control, we must maintain psychological and emotional mastery over our experiences—we must talk, and we must listen. The two work hand-in-hand; while the ‘talking’ sweeps our chimneys clear of emotions, the ‘cure’ reorganizes and restores our inner world. This is important because, as challenging as our current situation feels, we will come through this. And when we do, we will need all our internal resources for the task of rebuilding our lives. The ‘talking cure’ allows us to begin that rebuilding process now.

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COVID-19: Are You Hearing the Emotions of the Organization? Read more.


Barry Pokroy is the founder and leader of Circle & Square Inc. and a partner of Farber. Trained in clinical psychology, he has in-depth knowledge and experience in adapting the insights of psychological theory to the demands of the corporate environment. Barry can be reached at 416.505.0244 and bpokroy@farbergroup.com.

Dave Stevens is a Consultant with the Circle & Square practice of Farber. Grounded in the firm’s proprietary methodology, he focuses on leadership coaching, corporate training, and facilitation. Dave can be reached at 416.399.1318 and dstevens@farbergroup.com.