Shhhh. . . Don’t Tell Anyone, but Secrets Make You Sick!
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” ~ Maya Angelou
A has a saying, “You are only as sick as your secrets.” We all keep secrets from time to time: planning a surprise party, or the perfect gift, or a new life change happening that we will eventually share. These secrets are useful for the time being and not hurtful. The harmful secrets are those that we carry that change us physiologically and emotionally, impacting the way we live, who we become and how we enter into relationships.
People keep those harmful secrets for many reasons. This might include wanting to keep the peace, shame, wanting to protect, fear of the consequences, not wanting to disappoint others, fear of rejection or needing to cover up a secret with more secrets.
Carrying a secret is carrying a “heavy load”. The longer you carry it, the more it impacts your physical, mental and emotional well-being. In 1984, George Orwell said, “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” Because secrets eat away at us, we hide them by making them unconscious through layering thoughts on top of thoughts. (Eck, 2012) These thoughts might be rationalization about why to keep it a secret, convincing ourselves the secret should be kept ‘in the dark’ or why we will not be supported. Whatever the thoughts, we use them to bury the secret and keep it out of our consciousness. This then becomes a betrayal of ourselves as we cannot be authentic and real with those we care about. We become our secrets, our “edited” view of ourselves. Walls are created to help manage it, keeping us from the intimacy we yearn for as human beings.
The big secret in this is that when we keep secrets – declaring to keep certain things from life hidden – this impacts us physiologically, mentally and emotionally.
Physically, the brain can’t handle keeping a secret because it puts the brain in an awkward place. The brain’s orbital prefrontal cortex, which helps us in decision-making, complex thought and deceptions, plays out in our mind just how bad telling the secret would be. Our cingulate cortex, which is essential to our emotional responses, is wired to tell the truth. This part of the brain signals other regions of the brain to share information so it can move on to more important functions, such as learning. This also impacts the part of the brain where attention and responses are controlled. Holding a secret doesn’t allow this movement in the brain to happen and the cortex becomes stressed as the different brain regions battle each other.
Harboring secrets brings up anxiety and fear and sets off a chronic surge of stress hormones, as we are put into the “fight or flight” response. Cortisol and norepinephrine are dumped into our body. Chronically (as secrets are chronic when held for years), the cortisol dumps lead to health issues such as gastrointestinal problems, a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, memory loss, difficulty learning, sleep disruptions, osteoporosis, increased blood pressure, and loss of collagen in the skin, among other things. (Robert-Grey, 2013)
Emotionally, having secrets leads to depression. The constant monitoring of our feelings and suppression of our thoughts is exhausting. In a longitudinal survey of 278 adolescents, those who admitted to keeping a secret experienced low self-control, depression, loneliness and overall poor relationships with people. Six months later, those who chose to share their feelings felt dramatically better than those who still held on to the secrets. (Sloat, 2013) Secrets left unattended can provoke anxiety and chronic worrying. To engage in relationships, we need to compartmentalize our lives, which then requires that we create a false reality, keeping us out of touch with our true selves.
Keeping secrets isn’t just affecting the individual; it affects the whole system, whether it is the family, the organization, the church or other institution. When a secret has been pushed underground, it also gains power. The secret creates anxiety and spreads through the secretive system. To work towards restoring balance, anxious systems often replay the same situation (or recreate similar events) in an attempt to work it out and get it right. In the mental health field, we call this phenomenon re-enactment. (Weinhold, 2013)
Research has shown that writing out the pros and cons of holding on to a secret may be helpful. Just writing it out leads to dramatic reduction in stress hormone levels. (Robert-Grey, 2013) If you know someone who is trustworthy, consider confiding in that person and ridding yourself of the secret. When you talk about your secret, you start to process it, make sense of it and learn how to cope with it. This reduces your preoccupation with the secret, and lessens the load. As you are able to put down the heavy load you have been carrying all these years, you begin to have more energy to attend to your tasks in the present moment. Your body, mind and spirit all feel the lessening of the load and your life will be better as you move towards being the “real authentic you.”
Eck, C. (2012, March 22). The psychology behind why we keep secrets. Retrieved from SelfGrowth.com: www.selfgrowth.com
Robert-Grey, G. (2013, , Oct 24). Keeping secrets can be hazardous to your health. Retrieved from www.forbes.com: www.forbes.com
Sloat, S. (2013, November 21). You can’t keep a secret for long. Retrieved from Salon.com: www.salon.com
Weinhold, B. P. (2013, September 16). Telling Secrets: 5 Reasons why keeping secrets is harmful. Retrieved from www.beverlyweinhold.org/blog: www.beveralyweinhold.org/blog
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.
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