Most of us have at least a few secrets of our own. Likely, many of us have also asked someone else to keep a secret for us. According to psychologist Michael Slepian, Ph.D., the average person keeps 13 secrets.
Slepian has compiled a list of 38 categories of secrets people commonly keep to themselves by sifting through thousands of secrets taken from anonymous surveys. The reasons for keeping secrets can vary greatly, but in most cases, it’s in an effort to spare someone’s feelings. It might also be in order to save your own reputation. But could keeping all these secrets be harming our well-being?
What is the health cost of keeping a secret?
Generally, the idea of keeping a secret can seem pretty harmless. After all, most of the time it’s just a small thing. However, it seems that the cost of keeping secrets might be higher than you think. This is especially true when you find yourself constantly thinking about and/or worrying about the secret that you’re keeping.
Slepian explains that “when you find yourself stuck on it, you find yourself unsure what to do or feeling ashamed.”. This can become a problem as the brain can no longer move forward. When your brain keeps returning to and worrying about a secret that you’re keeping repetitively for an extended period of time, it can begin to harm your health.
This is also true when you keep secrets in order to solve problems. It means that you’re not actually dealing with the issues in any productive way. Instead of having conversations that are likely vital in order to successfully solve the problem, everything is pushed aside, and you end up in stasis.
Slepian notes, “If you’re too afraid of opening up, you’re not having the conversations you need to be having to work on these things that you’re keeping secret”.
Though it may feel like you’re protecting yourself, keeping secrets, especially those that stem from ‘trauma, unhealthy behavior, and negative beliefs’ are easily internalized. This will take a toll on both your mind and body.
What are the negative results of secret-keeping?
Keeping secrets that play on your mind and worry you for an extended period of time can have pretty severe consequences. It can result in reduced performance and efficiency, as well as cause you to feel more tired more frequently.
Constantly thinking about these secrets can even evoke feelings of isolation, according to a 2019 study. You might also struggle to focus on a specific task and find yourself constantly distracted. Because social connection is so important for mental and physical health, these feelings of isolation can begin to have a very negative effect on the body’s immune response. If you’re constantly keeping secrets, it’ll be almost impossible for you to fully open up to people and ‘break down that emotional wall’.
According to Psychiatrist Maggie Tipton, other negative effects of secret keeping can also include:
Higher cortisol levels
Increased blood pressure
Negative impact on overall mental health
An increase in chronic pain
Sometimes, however, a secret can be healthy
Whilst most of the time keeping secrets does more harm than good regarding your health, sometimes it might help. According to Slepian, there is such a thing as a healthy secret. This might be a secret that you’re keeping on a temporary basis in order to surprise someone. It might be some sort of big reveal, such as a marriage proposal or announcing that you and your partner are expecting a baby.
In order to be considered a healthy secret, it can’t be a negative thing or something that causes constant worry. These are good things that we are excited to reveal and have a set date for doing so. It’s the reason these secrets feel so good; you’re the one in control of the reveal and excited to share the news.
These healthy secrets, according to Slepian “have this clear expiration date set into the future [and] we’re really planning how this information comes out”. This is a really healthy feeling as, when we feel in control, we tend to live a healthier life. We are also better at coping with common stressors, which, in turn, aids the immune system. This results in a long and ultimately healthy life.
So should we keep secrets?
Ultimately, it really depends on what type of secret you’re keeping. Some secrets, especially small, unassuming ones, can seem really benign. However, if these secrets play on your mind and cause constant worry, they are likely to negatively impact you. This might ultimately result in you feeling isolated and lonely, which can have far-reaching consequences. This includes constantly feeling tired and unable to focus, and can even negatively impact the immune system in the long run.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean that you can’t keep some things private. Just be sure that keeping it back isn’t causing you harm. On the other hand, if you’re keeping a secret that’s exciting, such as your best friend having a baby, it can be a good thing for your health. As long as your secret isn’t causing you to isolate yourself and burden you, it’s likely not going to cause any harm. If you start to feel like the secret owns you and weighs you down, it’s likely time to open up to a trusted friend or family member.