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Can Keeping Secrets Actually Affect Your Brain?
Who doesn’t love the thrill of being told a secret? Or being trusted enough to keep a secret? Or what about those of you who carry your own personal secret that you have never revealed to anyone? Does it make you feel special? Sad? Perhaps more importantly, what does keeping a secret do to the brain? Does it affect it at all?
Our brains are constantly gathering information and steering our behavior toward what is considered to be appropriate. As we receive information, competing parts of our brains try to decide what to do with this information — especially information that we are not supposed to pass on.
Back in 1909, a German neuroanatomist divided the brain into 43 distinct areas and assigned numbers to each section on a “map.” Today, doctors are still using this map. Much like the struggle for real estate, all of our brain areas are constantly rivaling each other for information. It’s something like a war zone most of the time. This is why, for example, when someone loses their sight, they often find that this part of the brain is annexed into another part of the brain that controls hearing or motor areas. This is how blind people can “see” your face by feeling it.
Research has shown that keeping secrets, especially if it’s a traumatic one of your own, is unhealthy for the brain and physical health. This is why sharing a secret feels so good. Telling secrets is therapeutic, especially if you share with a stranger. This removes the “secret” from your brain with no risk involved on your part. This explains the popularity of sites such as Postsecret.com.
Being a trustworthy confidante is an acquired skill. Our brains would rather have you set the secret free, because keeping it involves stress. Therefore, learning to go against natural inclinations means that we need to practice self-control, long-term decision making and trust. If you are good at keeping secrets, you probably find that you are carrying several from different friends or family members.
However, keeping secrets can have an adverse impact on gray matter. If you keep a secret for a long period of time, it will increase the level of stress hormones in both the brain and body. Your brain does not like high levels of stress hormones and one part of it will continually tell you that you need to ditch that secret. The other part of your brain says that you need to be loyal to your friend or family, for whatever reason you are keeping this secret, and it will tell you to continue, which increases your stress levels even more. You can see where this goes.
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What do we know about those who keep secrets? Secret-keepers tend to be sick people. Although the exact reason for this is not yet known, what is known is that stress is hard on the body, particularly the immune system. When your immune system is constantly depressed due to stress, you are more susceptible to illness and disease. There is considerable research which shows stress harms the body, so it only goes to say that if you want to remain healthy, don’t be a secret-keeper — and don’t keep secrets for too long if you are.
One web page, The Apology Page, is an anonymous Internet sanctuary where you can post anything you like: secrets, regrets, apologies, releasing your secrets to the anonymous internet world. You can also read some of the apologies and secrets that people have left on this website, which can reduce your own feelings of shame and isolation.
Studies show that people who keep long-term secrets believe hills are steeper than those who do not hold secrets. Holocaust victims, with memories about their mistreatment and the deaths of loved ones, who begin to talk about their experiences become healthier the longer they talked about the past. Doctor of Psychology Anita Kelly from the University of Notre Dame, has spent years researching the affects secrets can have on our health. In short, Dr. Kelly notes that those who hold on to secrets have high levels of depression, anxiety and general aches and pains throughout the body.
Counselors and therapists will tell you that self-disclosure can result in many positive health benefits including increased self-esteem, problem clarification, increased feelings of support, and improved moods.
When should you share a secret?
- If it’s your own secret, and it is causing you anxiety.
- When you can limit the amount of harm to someone by sharing what you know.
- if keeping the secret puts someone in danger
If you must share a secret because someone you know and care about might be hurt because of it, think the best way to reveal it. Always be aware that some people don’t really want to know the truth, and it’s not right to reveal a secret to relieve yourself of pain by adding to someone else’s pain.
If you have secrets that you must share but don’t know how or to whom you should trust them, or if you have secrets that you don’t know how to handle, seek the advice of a qualified therapist.