Tag Archives: Stawar Blog

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


Not so Sweet Mysteries of Life

4 Feb

Last week at the Friends of the Library  sale in New Albany, I bought  a book by David Feldman entitled: Imponderables: The Mysteries of Everyday Life.  I’ve already read several books in this series and I’m a big fan of  Feldman, who defines “Imponderables”  as  “questions that cannot be answered by numbers, measurements, or standard reference books.”  He says that he discovered imponderables one day at the supermarket, when he noticed that virtually every cereal, even the really sugary ones, contained 110 calories per ounce. With a college major in popular culture,  Feldman  is very serious about his “imponderables”.  He has been working on them since the 1980’s,  he’s published nine volumes on the topic, runs the Imponderables.com website, and has even trademarked the word.

With their short entries,   Feldman’s books make excellent reading for situations that call for brief distractions. I never pass up one of Feldman’s books or any of those of his chief rival,  syndicated columnist, Cecil Adams , who modestly bills himself  as “the world’s most intelligent human being” and writes books, as well as the Straight Dope newspaper column.    

Some of the  topics they address remind me of the comic strip, They’ll Do It Every Time,  created by  cartoonist Jimmy Hatlo in 1929.  Suggestions for this strip came from  readers and Hatlo credited them with an acknowledgment that featured a drawing of himself,  tipping his hat. My wife Diane’s mother once got a   “Tip O’ the Hat” for  her observation on how movie theaters would try to charge a young person an adult admission one time,  but then refuse admission to a movie for adults the next.


            While both Feldman and Adams have done a commendable job covering an enormous range of questions, there are still a lot of things that baffle me.  Below are a few of  my most recent puzzlements.   

  1. About a dozen years ago we moved in to a house with both an upstairs and a basement, so why are we not as thin as rails, from constantly traipsing up and down the stairs. I recall a  study from the 1950’s that said  that when typists  started using electric typewriters  they burned  fewer calories and, on the average, gained 10 pounds over the course of a  year.  Taking into account the average number of trips up and down the stairs we make each day,  according to my calculations  by now Diane and I should each weigh about 95 pounds. So what gives?   
  2. I also find that I am an “Imponderable”  for another person.  A former co-worker of mine had a heart attack several  years ago. He went through cardiac rehabilitation and is doing very well. Unlike me, however, he had always been very careful about his weight,  diet,  exercise, and  cholesterol levels. Also unlike me, he didn’t have an extensive family history of  heart problems. He never said it directly, but whenever the topic came up I could tell that he just couldn’t understand why he had  a heart attack,  instead of me. He always seemed a bit  agitated by this bit of cosmic unfairness and I usually felt like I should apologize for not defibrillating. When I suggested it might be due to all the stairs that I climb at home, he was not amused. 
  3. Another thing I can never understand is why, whenever we go grocery shopping and get anything extra, it seems to disproportionately increase the total bill. Adding a simple pot roast or a couple jars of mayonnaise  suddenly inflates the bill tremendously. The same is true in restaurants,  if we’re   foolish enough to order dessert, an appetizer, or coffee after dinner.
  4.  Diane has noted that some Jeffersonville merchants often talk in glowing terms about how downtown   New Albany has developed,  while merchants from New Albany  often seem to envy the quaint  downtown Jeffersonville shopping district.  I suppose this is mostly a case of the grass always being greener on the other side of the fence.   
  5. Tapas restaurant are another mystery to me.  It seems that if a menu item is called a “ Tapa”,       somehow it’s  okay to charge a lot for a relatively small portion. I think “Tapas” must be Spanish for   “expensive leftovers”. Of course, after drinking  a pitcher of Sangria, you don’t really mind so much.
  6. Why do other people always have pets that are loyal, obedient, and affectionate, while ours are always traitorous, stubborn, and usually highly defiant (not unlike our children). When we got our last dog,  I did  some research to try to find the perfect breed. No such luck, Newman was  just as obnoxious as our previous pets. He finally ran away, found a better family with children, and was loyal to them.
  7. Why do new shoes feel really comfortable in the shoe store, but start hurting the second you get them home.
  8. Another question that has baffled me for years is, why can’t I ever  drive down the street, without someone pointing at one of my tires.
  9. How can I lose a receipt, just walking from the check-out  to the  exit at Wal-Mart? Once they asked to see my receipt, as we were leaving the store,  so without bothering to check,  I gave   them the only one I had in my wallet. Turns out that receipt was from Off-Broadway Shoes. 
  10. I would like to know just who is it that is listening to our car radio turned up so loud? I deny it, Diane denies it, but occasionally when I put the key in the ignition, the radio is so loud that I nearly jump out of my skin.
  11. My grandchildren would really like to know how come, when you get a new sled, it never snows?
  12.  Why does my cell phone bill change ever month? My cell phone bills are like snowflakes— no two are ever alike. Every month it seems that the charges randomly fluctuate.
  13. Finally, one of the mysteries of the ages, “Why do Tater Tots taste so darn good?”

Based on a newspaper column in the Southern Indiana News-Tribune.