Friday, September 08, 2006

Does Keeping Secrets Affect Your Health?

Something that all incest survivors share are secrets. Often during recovery one of the most difficult issues we struggle with is whether or not to reveal these secrets and if so, to whom and when? I also have struggled with this dilemma on many levels and when I came across this article I decided that not only was it very interesting but it was rather important that I pass it along. The following is an article written by Wray Herbert:

Pssst. Want to Know a Secret?
A new study finds that keeping some things to yourself could be better for your health than confessing them.
By Wray Herbert
Special to Newsweek

Updated: 4:17 p.m. CT Aug 21, 2006
Aug. 21, 2006 - A women's deodorant company recently launched a major promotional campaign that encourages women to "Share your Secret." In national TV ads and on outdoor billboards—including one in New York's Times Square—women are being applauded for their candid revelations of long-buried shames and thrills. "M" finally unburdens herself about her 20-year struggle with bulimia, while Donna fesses up that she has slept with 70 men, not the mere four she told her husband. Wendy has had both her nipples pierced for a year and nobody knows.

Neither the secrets nor the ad campaign is particularly shocking. After all, we live in a confessional culture. There is a lot of pressure to reveal our private lives, lest our dark secrets eat away at us from the inside and do serious physical and psychic damage. The impulse is evident everywhere, from the psychotherapist's consulting room to 12-Step meetings to the pages of yet one more personal memoir of cruel parenting, sexual promiscuity or addiction.

There are a lot of theories about why secrets might be toxic. One holds that lying inhibits the natural inclination to tell the truth, and such inhibition takes physiological effort. This drain on psychic energy in turn stresses the body, causing everything from back pain to depression. A similar theory holds that people who bury shameful secrets in the closet come to feel like imposters, with no true self, a stressful state of falsehood that over time undermines health and well-being.

There is one problem with these theories. Given all this sharing and confessing in our society, it would follow that Americans ought to be a pretty healthy and contented group. Yet a lot of evidence indicates that's not the case. Faced with this seeming contradiction, psychologists have recently been questioning the idea that keeping secrets takes a toll on minds and bodies.

When psychologist Anita Kelly, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, began to explore the link between secrecy and illness, she was surprised to find that it had never actually been tested. So she and her colleague Jonathan Yip decided to take a look at secrecy in the laboratory. To do so, they asked about 100 healthy people whether or not they were currently hiding something important. A striking number—three out of four—confessed that they were indeed concealing something from friends and family. With the secret sharers, Kelly and Yip pried further, asking if the secret had to do with family, sex, a romantic relationship, an abortion, an eating disorder and so forth. This was just to verify that their secrets were not frivolous. Some had held their secret for just days, others for months. But some had been carrying their burdens in solitude for more than six years.

The researchers also gave the participants a personality test, to see if they had a predisposition to conceal things in general. And they asked them about their sources of social support, on the theory that people with dark secrets might tend to isolate themselves, and that this social isolation would cause stress and illness later on. Then they sent them home.

When they called them back nine weeks later, they examined them for symptoms of psychological distress. They wanted to know if they were depressed or anxious or paranoid, but also whether they were experiencing psychosomatic symptoms like chest pain, dizziness or nausea. The findings, which are scheduled to be published in the Journal of Personality in October, were interesting and a bit counterintuitive.

Contrary to the wisdom of deodorant marketers, the people hiding something actually had fewer psychosomatic symptoms than did those with clear consciences. By contrast, those with secretive personalities—people who guard everything from their golf handicap to their mother's maiden name—were experiencing greater distress than the more open types.

Why would this be? Well, Kelly and Yip weren't all that surprised really. When you think about it, there are many social situations where there are significant benefits to not dishing personal stuff. A problem drinker, for example, is no doubt calmer knowing her habit is not public knowledge; sharing that secret with a boss or coworkers could only add to the stress. In addition, fessing up about something like promiscuity or addiction or bulimia necessarily shapes one's sense of identity. Well chosen secrets can preserve a more idealized—and healthier—self-image.

So keep those pierced nipples to yourself. (It may be more than we want to know anyway!) But here's the rub: People who habitually hide everything—you know them, they skulk about and don't talk much—do have cause for concern. Indeed, these people's health problems were already apparent at the beginning of the study, suggesting they live in a chronic state of stress.

So two cheers for honesty, I guess. In the end everyone has to decide for himself what's a risky confession and at what point secrecy tilts toward paranoia. Speaking for myself: I'm saving my most sordid secrets for my memoir.

Wray Herbert writes the "We're Only Human . . ." blog. It appears at

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.