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Carrying a Secret can be a Heavy Load

24 Aug

With the recent news of finding bodies buried in backyards in our region , a lot of people are probably wondering what other secrets are out there, just waiting to be discovered.  Personally I’ve always been terrible at keeping secrets. In the past, even after   a friend    would solemnly swear me to secrecy, I’d usually blab to  the next person I’d see. I just couldn’t help it. Maybe this was because in my professional role as a therapist, I had to be especially careful about always maintaining confidentiality.   I’m a little better now, but not much. I hope I’m never captured by   enemies, I’d probably tell them more than they wanted to know, even before they asked. No need for water boarding with me.

People keep secrets for a lot of reasons, but mainly I think it is to avoid looking bad  in front of other people or to escape the consequences of our behavior.   Sometimes we keep secrets just  to avoid conflict with others, or to prevent our  enemies from using  information against us.

In literature keeping a secret   usually leads to something bad.  New York City writer Maria Konnikova   points outs how keeping a terrible secret takes it’s deadly  toll on the health of the fictional  Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale (father of Hester Prynne’s  illegitimate baby)   in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.  She wonders if a terrible  secret could actually do that much damage  to someone.  She says,  “The Scarlet Letter gets one thing so incredibly right   that it almost…  makes up for everything it gets wrong: it’s not healthy to keep a secret.”

It seems, however, to depend on the nature of the  secret.  Gail Saltz, a psychiatry professor at Cornell Medical School,  says that  secrets can be either  “benign” or “malignant,” depending on the scenario.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner and  his colleagues found that secret thoughts tend to  be  very  accessible.  People can recall memories, which  they had been asked to keep secret, better than memories which  they had been instructed to tell the truth or lie  about.   Secrets come to mind much more often than almost any other kind of thoughts. They frequently preoccupy us, contrary to  our conscious wishes.  Wegner found that in his experiments people were   likely to give  unintentional hints about things they were supposed to keep secret.  Wegner  also found that personal secrets often  result in outward signs of distress, and  that secrecy can itself create further unwanted thoughts,  continuing  the cycle.

Knowing how difficult it can be to keep secrets, Wegner his  colleagues  give the following common sense suggestions: 1. Avoid  alcohol since it diminishes inhibitions.  2  Reduce stress, since it  decreases  conscious control. 3. Write the secret down (in a symbolic way this disclosures the secret  and relieves some of the   pressure, even though     no one actually reads the secret  and finally  4. Avoid situations where being asked to keep a secret is likely to occur.

When we speak about secrets we use a special vocabulary and we often say things like, “We carry (or hold)  a secret”   as if where an actual physical object. Our language also refers to   “being weighed down” or “carrying a heavy  burden ,”  and confession is said to “lighten our load”.  Researchers  have investigated how our bodies may literally interpret  such  metaphorical descriptions.   For example, the importance or seriousness of information is often associated with weight. A serious persons is said  to have “gravitas”, or an intellectual work may be  said to be quite “weighty”. Dutch  studies have shown that when subjects learn  that a certain book is  important, they begin to   perceived that book as physically weighing more.

Along similar lines,  Michael L. Slepian from Tufts University and his colleagues found that bodily  states, associated with physical burdens, may be simulated when  people have important personal secrets. In this study they looked at the behavior of people who harbored important personal secrets, such as infidelity or sexual orientation. In a series of studies,  they found that subjects, who were currently held an important personal secret, perceived hills to be steeper, distances  longer, and  physical tasks  requiring  more effort than they would otherwise. Participants were also significantly less  inclined  to help other people with physical tasks. It was as if their own energy reserves were depleted.  The more subjects thought about the secret,  the more the secret   influenced   their perceptions.

The researchers found that   concealments are   perceived at a somatic level as physical burdens,   they can result in actual physical overexertion and exhaustion. This exhausting effort required to maintain secrets over many years,  may also explain why criminals sometimes suddenly confess,  despite years of previous  silence.

Psychologist James Pennebaker, from the  University of Texas, found  that people who had a serious trauma before age 17 were much more likely to have health problems as adults. The majority of these people kept the trauma secret. Pennebaker had   subjects visited his lab each week to  write about their  traumatic experiences. Some subjects talked about the trauma, while others just wrote about it, showing their writing to  no one.   Divulging the secret to others or simply writing it on a piece of paper that is later burned,   were both highly  correlated with physical and mental  health improvements.  People who continued to conceal  their traumatic secrets showed more  hypertension, influenza,  and even cancer.  The subjects, who wrote about their secrets demonstrated, enhanced immunity and in some cases, T-cell counts in AIDS patients even increased.

In similar research studies, holocaust victims who finally disclosed secrets   demonstrated a marked improvement in their health status,   after the interviews.  The more they disclosed, the more their health improved.

How the disclosure of personal secrets creates such health benefits is rather complicated.    Pennebaker says that writing about a secret helps label and organize it, which in turn helps subjects better understand and master aspects of the secret that had been hidden. Disclosure can become a habit, leading to more openness in relationships. Revealing secrets can also reduce obsessive ruminations and their accompanying anxiety. Without   anxiety and self-absorption,  people become better listeners and have more opportunities for richer social relationships.

Notre Dame psychology professor Anita Kelly and her colleagues   examined people’s health statuses and found that secretive people, tend to be sicker than other people. She found that  “self-concealers,”, were often   more depressed, anxious, and shy, and have discomfort.  She believes there may be a genetic link  between   secretiveness and   vulnerability to illness.

Kelly  also believes that  keeping  benign secrets can have  positive aspects,  providing personal boundaries or avoiding  unnecessary social conflicts.  Disclosing  a   malignant secret, may have a positive outcome, but that  depends on having a safe confidant.   If such a confidant is not available, Kelly takes a cue from Pennebaker and   suggests writing about the secrets, which  simulates the benefits of disclosing the secret  to others.

So, it you have some deep secret that is troubling you, spend some time  writing about  it  down,  or  find someone that you trust and take a chance. You may find that a large burden is  finally lifted.  Just don’t tell me anything,  if you know what’s good for you.

From a column that appeared in the Southern Indiana News Tribune

Motel Indiana

26 Mar

                   I’m staying in Indianapolis for a conference and I’m wondering why they held meeting this at a hotel so close to the airport. Nobody is actually flying in to attend it and according to my calculations a window-rattling flight takes off approximately every seven minutes. I have enough trouble sleeping away from home. I should have suspected something was up, when I saw the compact disc player next to the bed with a special CD that played relaxing sounds. There were also sleep tips printed on the CD jacket and it came with a little pouch containing ear plugs and an eyeshade. It seems like our rooms always have something wrong with them, like noisy air conditioners or toilets that overflow.

                Once coming back from picking our youngest son up at college, we stopped at one of the low cost national chain motels. The AC was so loud, I had to ask for another room. I always feel embarrassed and am not very assertive in such situations, but the noise was unbearable. We moved to a new room down the hall, that was quieter, but a few minutes after we hauled in our suitcases, I noticed something usual high on the wall. After studying it a while we determined it was a live bat, so I had to tramp back down to the front desk to beg for yet another room.

                       When I first came to southern Indiana several years ago, I stayed in a motel for a couple of weeks, while we tried to sell our house in Florida. We were economizing, so the accommodations were far from luxurious. I remember that for entertainment there was cable television and domestic disputes in the parking lot. The cabled tended to fade in and out, but the fighting was pretty much nonstop. When the cable would go on the fritz I could play “Name that Stain” as the carpet was a veritable Rorschach of undeterminable splotches. I was afraid to walk around the place barefoot, so I always put my shoes back on whenever I got out of the shower. I laughably had what was called a “no smoking room” and occasionally I would walk out to the nearby highway for a breath of fresh air. Once I found a cigarette butt actually tucked into the sheet. I believe the “no smoking” referred to fact that the room was not actually on fire when I moved in. I also had to change rooms after the large bathroom mirror fell off the wall scattering minute glass particles all over the room. Dodging the shards, I felt like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, trying to maneuver so I could get to the phone to report the disaster. Scott, the unfortunate teenager the office sent over to clean up the broken glass, said that a new mirror usually cost $55. Evidently they replaced quite of few of them in this establishment. I was impressed as Scott seemed very experienced handling hazardous materials. The night manager, a tough and dangerous looking girl of about 19, skeptically accepted my story that the mirror just fell off the wall, and moved me to another room without a hassle. Scott said they were probably just happy that I didn’t have my next-of-kin suing the place for negligent decapitation.

                     According to Scott, who was a fount of information regarding vandalism, a new front window ran $330. He said a trucker, a few doors down from me, had recently broken one by flinging a hammer at his partner, an ingrate who had the audacity to duck. Afterwards the trucker staggered over to the office and slapped down four one hundred-dollar bills, like he had been through this drill before and it was an everyday room service charge. I was happy to switch rooms. In my old room everytime some motel guest would dial an 800 phone number my phone would ring. I got calls all night long since most of the motel clientele was unable to grasp the “dial 9 first for an outside line” concept.

                        In my new room the phone was completely inoperative, which was fine with me. I was also glad to get away from my neighbor. He was a man about thirty years old, with a week’s growth of beard, and dark sunglasses, who would squat barefoot in front of his door smoking cigarettes for hours at a time. I didn’t mind the smoking, but all that squatting and those bare feet started to creep me out. I quickly learned it is best not to look inside other people’s motel rooms as you pass by. My neighbor’s room, for example, resembled the high cluttered van of a serial killer on the lamb. After I was there a week or so I decided that it was too risky to use the motel laundry room. First I had to walk by “squatty” on the way over there, and on one visit I was accosted by a guy trying to sell some kind of super duper cleaning fluid for $40 a bottle. Before I could stop him, he sprayed the fluid on one of my tennis shoes. Unfortunately it worked so well, that my shoes no longer matched. I wasn’t about to pay forty bucks to clean the other shoe, so I had to walk around for weeks with one gleaming white shoe and one yellowish grimy one. The funny thing was that my room wasn’t all that cheap. We ended up renting a pretty nice duplex apartment for much less money. There must be something I was missing. Perhaps they replaced the stale cinnamon pinwheel breakfast with Eggs Benedict and didn’t tell me, or maybe that was a piece of chocolate on my pillow, not a blood stain.

Happy Franksgiving America

29 Oct

We are only a month away from Thanksgiving Day — the holiday that more than a quarter of Americans claim is their favorite. My exhaustive research shows that families gather together to give thanks in the manner of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans’ harvest celebration of 1621. My source? None other than that repository of all knowledge: the Weekly Reader magazine. It’s a sort of Huey, Dewey and Louie’s Junior Woodchuck Manual for us baby boomers.

But according to sociologists Melanie Wallendorf from the University of Arizona and Eric Arnould from the University of Colorado, Thanksgiving also serves multiple social functions as a “collective ritual that celebrates our material abundance through feasting.”

They contend that our elaborate Thanksgiving Day meal is a way of reassuring ourselves that we have the ability to more than meet our basic needs. We stuff our turkeys, as well as ourselves, to show how well we’re doing. Perhaps that’s why we add so much butter to everything. When I was growing up, my family only served real butter at Christmas and Thanksgiving time.

Since this abundance ritual — in its basic form (turkey, stuffing, cranberries and pumpkin pie) — is widely shared, it also serves to binds us all together and increase social cohesion. But unlike the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, those of us born since World War II come to believe in a “permanent abundance.” We aren’t sitting in clover just because it’s harvest time or because we had a particularly good year. We view continually increasing material abundance as a defining feature of what it means to be an American.

These days, however, the unpredictable price of energy, rising food and health care costs, the mortgage credit crunch and the stock market meltdown have challenged this cherished belief. In a Newsweek cover story titled “A Darker Future for Us,” business writer Robert J. Samuelson says that fundamental changes in our economy have put us on the cusp of a new era, in which continually increasing prosperity cannot be counted upon.

Conservative columnist George Will has recently emphasized the historic link between Thanksgiving and the economy. He pointed out how President Franklin Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to extend the Christmas shopping season to help battle the Great Depression. Back then, it was unthinkable to advertise Christmas merchandise before Thanksgiving. Will says that FDR did not defer to the calendar any more than he did to the Constitution, even though over 60 percent of the country disapproved of his actions and the public was outraged. FDR’s critics mocked the early Thanksgiving by calling it “Franksgiving.”

Unless it gives them a three-day weekend, Americans just don’t cotton to anyone messing with their traditions. Jeffersonville Mayor Galligan recently learned this after his attempt to change the date of Halloween, or as they now call it in Jeffersonville — “Tommyween.”

Over time, major corporations have become integrated into our traditions. So despite our stated preference for the “old fashioned” and “homemade,” most of us are preparing to eat our Butterball turkeys, Ocean Spray cranberry sauce and Pepperidge Farm stuffing. While those three companies seem recession-proof — with strong annual earnings from Ocean Spay, a new corporate headquarters for Butterball and Pepperidge Farm being the most profitable division of the Campbell Soup Company — many other corporate icons have fallen on hard times. Like many Americans, in recent months the companies that handle my mortgage, retirement fund, insurance and major credit card have all faced serious fiscal difficulty. Even R. H. Macy & Company, the sponsors of the New York City Thanksgiving Day Parade and the setting for The Miracle on 34th Street, filed for bankruptcy in the 1990s and the brand only survived through a series of mergers and reorganizations. As recently as early October, the reconstituted Macy’s slashed its 2008 profit outlook, due to the softening economy that has consumers scaling back on spending.

So what do we have to be thankful for this year in the present era of mortgage foreclosures, dwindling retirement accounts and trillion dollar bailouts? I asked a number of people and there were many of the customary responses: faith, family, friends and health. Many people were also thankful simply to be Americans, with all the freedoms we enjoy. Others were thankful for the election outcomes; even those whose candidates lost were at least glad that the long campaign is finally over. A surprising number of people said they were thankful for their “jobs,” perhaps in recognition that the unemployment rate just hit a 14-year high.

In the field of mental health in which I work, the watchwords of our profession are “hope” and “recovery” and such an ideology of optimism is more relevant today than ever. When FDR said we have nothing to fear but fear itself in his first inaugural address in 1933, the Great Depression had reached its greatest depth. FDR was the man for those times, precisely because he could convey the those optimistic values which are at the core of the American character.

In the same speech, FDR also said these words that may be more relevant today than they were when he first said them. “Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.” Or as John and Paul (The Beatles, not the apostles) put it for us baby boomers — “We can get by with a little help from our friends.”

Now Introducing the Welcome to Planet Terry Podcast!

22 Aug

Welcome to Planet Terry Podcast

With a new space upgrade, I am now adding episodes from the Welcome to Planet Terry Podcast. Click the link below for episode 1: the War of the Wasps.

WTPT 001 War of Wasps

American Pyro

12 Jun

My family always went over board on holidays– like the Christmas my electrician father installed 200 red and green 100 watt light bulbs around our front porch. He thought it lent that special holiday magic. My mother said it made the house look like a sleazy tavern. The Fourth of July, however ,was a time when things really got out of control. One year my older brother constructed a working carbide cannon out of 6 foot length of sewer pipe. Dressed like a revolutionary war soldier, he pulled the cannon down main street to advertise his new barbeque stand, which specialized in pig snouts. This was the same brother who had once fashioned a hot tub out of a cattle feeding trough.
The fourth was a major event in the small town where I grew up. People would cross state lines just to buy illegal fireworks, even though the local cops were highly skilled at confiscating them. These fireworks would turn up at the town hall where city employees would take them home for their kids. I didn’t mind– my dad was a volunteer fireman. I occasionally regained possession of my own contraband fireworks this way. As in prohibition times, there was no way to quench the public’s thirst for bootlegged fireworks. There were black cat and atomic firecrackers, cherry bombs, Roman Candles, fountains, pinwheels, helicopters and the dreaded M-80s (advertised as an eighth of a stick of dynamite). There were even tiny firecrackers called ladyfingers that kids would dare you to hold in your hand while they exploded. I wasn’t that stupid, even then.
Like today, parents encouraged younger kids to play with sparklers. For some reason these molten metal spewing flares, that exceed 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, were considered harmless. When they burn out you’re stuck with a red-hot piece of wire– the perfect plaything for a barefoot five year old. I personally managed to eliminated the spent sparkler disposal problem by inventing the exploding sparkler when I was 9 years old. You simply attach a M-80 to the bottom of the sparkler and shove it in the ground. A few minutes later there is an immense explosion and the white-hot wire is hurled into the stratosphere. My mother didn’t think much of the invention.
One year I threw a cherry bomb in the middle of the street. It appeared to be a dud, but before I could do anything a state police cruiser came screaming up and parked right on top of the still-glowing explosive device. The surly patrolman said, “Hey kid, you see any punks around here playing with fireworks?” A fleeting vision of a police car engulfed in a ball of flames, a 10-25 year stretch in Statesville, and possibly a boyfriend named Buster raced through my mind. I must have sweated enough to extinguish the water proof cherry bomb.
The highlight of every Fourth of July, however, was the city fireworks display. This always took place at the fairgrounds where they held the carnival and fish fry. Every year I’d drop a bundle on the pan game. The local Catholic church ran this roulette-like concession. It was played with deceptively innocent looking, multi-colored muffin pans and a volley ball. One year I devised a fool-proof betting system that cost me 6 month’s allowance, but greatly advanced my knowledge of statistics and probability.
At nine o’clock I would take my prized seat to watch the show. Since my father was a fireman, I got to sit in the emergency fire truck, which was parked about 50 yards ahead of the police line that held back the rabble and lowly civilians. While the fire chief was distracted by a side of barbecued ribs, my father and the other firemen would fill up the truck’s huge hubcaps with Falstaff beer and ice. These would come in handy later.
I always preferred the ear-piercing aerial bombs, but the crowd went wild when glowing debris would fall to earth. One year to almost everyone’s delight, a burning chunk actually fell on the roof of a nearby house. Fortunately it was early enough in the evening that the firemen were still sober enough to put it out. There’s nothing like a little old fashion pyromania to make you feel patriotic and proud to be an American.

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