Life Health & Wellbeing

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Why keeping secrets is bad for your health

Clinical psychologist Linda Blair explores the impact keeping secrets can have on our health

"On average, each of us is carrying 13 secrets at any one time."

Do you want to know a secret? It’s surprising how many secrets we all have — and how few of us actually keep them.

Michael Slepian and colleagues at Columbia recently conducted a series of studies looking at the effect that secrecy has on us. They began by asking more than 1,000 adults from 29 countries to disclose their inner-most secrets.

Using this data, they created 38 categories of secret, the most common relating to sexual behaviour, romantic desire for someone other than one’s partner and/or engaging in infidelity, lying, theft and violating trust. They also found that, on average, each of us is carrying 13 secrets at any one time.

In a second set of studies, they asked participants about the impact that secrecy has on their well-being and on the quality of their relationships. Somewhat to their surprise, the researchers found that concealing information when in the presence of another person doesn’t particularly affect well-being.

Instead, the most damaging aspect of secrecy is the effect it has on concentration and mood generally, whether or not others are present. The more often participants thought about their secrets, particularly those that made them feel guilty or ashamed, the worse they felt about themselves.

Slepian’s studies also confirmed that people reported thinking about their secrets at least twice as often when alone as they did when withholding them in the presence of others. Thus the problem with secrets is not that it’s hard to keep them to ourselves; rather, that holding onto them makes us feel bad.

Tom Frijns and colleagues at Utrecht University surveyed 790 Dutch adolescents: those who kept secrets to themselves were more likely to report physical complaints, lowered mood, greater loneliness and higher rates of delinquency than those who shared their secrets with either a best friend or a parent.

And Justin Lehmiller at Colorado State University found couples who kept their relationship secret from others had poorer physical and psychological health, and were less committed to their partner.

Holding on to our secrets appears to make us less happy, less healthy and lonelier, too. It’s best, therefore, to avoid secrecy and try to be honest and open whenever possible. I have written before about how to unburden yourself of a troublesome secret as benignly as possible.

But sometimes — in certain professions, for example — it’s necessary to keep secrets. If that’s the case for you, what can you do to minimise the impact on your health and well-being?

Learn calming distraction techniques such as mindfulness or meditation. Practice them daily.

Prioritise time for activities that create ‘flow’, those that challenge and engage you fully. Not only is this health-giving in itself, it means there will be less time to think about the secrets you must keep.


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