When I was a child, my entire family watched Perry Mason every Saturday night. At my young age I didn’t recognize the contrivance of how each case ended: The real murderer, who was never the defendant on trial, confessed his or her guilt right in the courtroom. This, of course, rarely happens in real life. But one aspect of these plots does ring true: Harboring a troublesome secret can haunt us with overwhelming anxiety.
Most of us keep certain information private, for many reasons. To avoid punishment for bad behavior, or because we’re ashamed about something that happened to us. We hold back facts that could incriminate a friend or hurt someone’s feelings. Sometimes keeping a secret can even give us a thrill; we feel privileged when a friend confides something and tells us not to tell anyone else.
But some buried memories are time bombs with a burning fuse. They can entrap feelings of guilt, anxiety, depression, or anger. When the concealed information is about abuse we’ve suffered, its power to compromise our well-being can grow over time like a festering wound. Studies show that unrevealed personal trauma can increase the likelihood of a number of health problems, including hypertension, flu, even cancer.
The Brain at War with Itself
According to David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and director of the Laboratory of Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine, secrets can create sparring factions in the brain; one part of the brain wants to spill the beans, while the other wants to stay mum. This battle can generate major stress. Acknowledging the undisclosed truth in some tangible way can help resolve the conflict. As Dr. Eagleman has found, the mere act of writing down a painful secret can reduce the level of stress hormones in the body. In another study, Holocaust victims who disclosed long-suppressed memories during interviews experienced significant health improvements as measured 14 months later. The more secrets they revealed, the more their health improved.
Children often suffer the most from hiding disturbing information. This burden is especially high when a child tries to prevent one parent from finding out the behavior of the other, as in cases of addiction. Enduring this double life can lead to serious emotional instability and actually stall a child’s development.
An Important Step: Finding Out That You Are Not Alone
The most debilitating aspect of hiding a past trauma can be thinking that you are alone in your suffering, or that somehow you deserved it. Support groups have taught us an important lesson about sharing our stories with others who have also suffered. Releasing this information from its solitary confinement to a nonjudgmental, caring group can provide significant relief. If the secret is about bad behavior and associated shame, revealing it to others can be the first step to forgiving oneself and moving on.
Do you have a painful secret stored away? It may be time to unload it…so you can free yourself from a burden that is weighing you down.
For more information, see Can You Keep a Secret? Maybe You Shouldn’t Even If You Can.