How Secrets Make Us Sick

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)


“The man who can keep a secret may be wise, but he is not half as wise as the man with no secrets to keep.”
—E.W. Howe

Are you familiar with the 2005 film “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”? It’s a fantastic romantic action comedy about two married assassins who work for competing firms. The punch line here is that each of them believes their spouse to be a regular civilian — that is, until their companies team up and try to have them kill each other. Starring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, the movie is about the couple finding out the truth and dealing with it.

There’s a great scene in the film that pertains to secrecy. Jane Smith (Jolie) is in her therapist’s office for a one-on-one session. She is asked about how honest she is with her husband, John Smith (Pitt). She replies, “Pretty honest. It’s not like I lie to him or anything. We just, um, I have little secrets; everybody has little secrets.” And she is completely right; most of us have kept secrets from time to time.

Secrets permeate every aspect of our lives. They are kept in families, politics, business, and education, as well as crime syndicates. People conceal and reveal them for a variety of complex reasons that range from self-serving purposes to altruistic ones. Sometimes they can be silly and trivial, like keeping mum about a surprise birthday party or where the Christmas presents are hidden. At other times, they can be dangerous and rather harmful — take infidelity or alcohol abuse as examples. Perhaps that is why Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

Now, harmless secrecy can be a good thing. According to an article on HowStuffWorks.com, researchers have concluded that children and adolescents can actually benefit from keeping light secrets. Doing so is a chance for them to build character while learning about themselves in the process. However, when they are forced to withhold damaging information, children can become emotionally stunted — unable to grow and develop their identity.

Anita E. Kelly, a doctor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, is an expert on secrecy. Her research suggests that withholding information can come at a price. People who keep many secrets experience a significant amount of stress that has been scientifically proven to impact long-term health. They become prone to depression, anxiety, and body aches. In other words, stress is a physiological response to stimuli with negative connotations (upsetting or threatening) that can be real or imagined.

While stressful events tend to evoke a physical response, it would be inaccurate to assume that secrecy always leads to bodily harm, although it has been known to happen. “Quite simply,” she stated, “secretive people also tend to be sick people … I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that being secretive could be linked to being symptomatic at a biological level.”

Turns out our brains don’t actually like keeping secrets. Dr. David Eagleman, a writer, neuroscientist and director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine, has done studies that demonstrate how sharing secrets impacts health. Confiding in a doctor or writing secrets down can reduce the level of stress hormones circulating in the body, while keeping secrets can create the opposite effect. Prolonged stress responses are known to be quite damaging.

In the NPR podcast “Fresh Air With Terry Gross,” Eagleman stated, “You have competing populations in the brain — one part that wants to tell something, and one part that doesn’t. And the issue is that we’re always cussing at ourselves or getting angry at ourselves or cajoling ourselves … What we’re seeing is that there are different parts of the brain that are battling it out. And the way that that battle tips determines your behavior.”

Moreover, James Pennebraker, a psychologist in the 1970s from the University of Texas, found that “People hiding traumatic secrets showed more incidents of hypertension, influenza, even cancer.” This is not surprising. In a Science Daily article, Dr. Joseph Boscarino wrote, “The science is conclusively showing that if you suffer psychological trauma, it’s going to take a toll on your physical health.” This can include impairments in metabolic function, which can play a significant part in the onset of a particular disease.

But so do genetic factors. Not everyone goes into shock after a traumatic event, much like not everyone experiences post-traumatic stress. What we biologically inherit plays a significant role in how we deal with our fight-or-flight responses. It’s also important to note that we are capable of exercising significant self-control, occasionally overpowering our biology. While some people fly off the handle at the slightest inconvenience, more patient people show reduced reactions (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety) under those same circumstances. It is actually in our best interest to do so. The longterm effects of stress have been well documented, and they extend well beyond early gray hairs and serious irritability. The Mayo Clinic lists migraine headaches, chest pain, sweating, substance abuse and depression as common side effects, but stress can also cause heart problems, like cardiac arrest and heart attack — neither of which seems appealing in any way.


So, back to “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” At the end of the film, the truth is finally out in the open. The couple is attending one of their (presumably) last therapy sessions. They are asked about the progress they’ve made in their relationship since the first session, and John Smith states, “We’re doing alright, aren’t we?” Both John and Jane Smith seem very much relaxed and happy together. Now, perhaps we’re reading a bit too deeply into it, but maybe, just maybe, it’s because they finally shared their secrets.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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