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The Weight of a Secret

We experience keeping secrets similarly to the way we feel physical burdens. And that could have consequences for our health.

| February 27th, 2013
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The Weight of a Secret

Have you ever held onto a secret? Been weighed down by a secret? Felt the burden of secrecy? They way we talk about it, you’d think a secret was a physical entity you had to carry around with you from place to place. Surprising new research finds that might not be so far from the truth.

Michael Slepian, a social psychologist at Tufts University, recently tested whether the burden of secrets goes beyond the metaphorical. To do this, he recreated an old experiment where participants had to hold a heavy object and look at picture of a hill and estimate the slope, then try to toss a beanbag at a target. The idea is that if you’re schlepping a full backpack, the thought of having to lug it up a hill is going to make that hill look like a tough climb. And it will make that target look so far away. In Slepian’s version, subjects held a secret instead of physical load. He had them write down either a big or small secret they were holding, then perform the tasks.

QUIZ: Are You an Open Person? 

The results mirrored the reactions of someone carrying a weight. The subjects who had focused on large secrets misjudged the slope of the hill, thinking that it looked significantly steeper than those who had written about trivial secrets did. The bigger the secret, the steeper the hill looked. The people with big secrets also consistently overthrew the target, suggesting that they perceived the distance as much longer than it was in reality.

“What’s really surprising is that something seemingly very disconnected from your body state is influencing you in a way that physical things influence you—as if that thing were itself physically weighing you down,” Slepian says.

He notes that this burden-like impact of secret-holding only presented itself among people who felt distraught over their secret. Those who were comfortable holding their secret were more accurate in judging hills and distances, as if they weren't saddled with any extra weight at all. Consider a real-world analogy. While it might be easy to hide that midday shopping trip from your boss, not telling your friend that you once had a fling with her new beau can really weigh on you.

So, then you should immediately let go of all your big secrets, right? Not necessarily, says Slepian. "If you're continually experiencing a physical burden it could benefit you to share, but only with people who are accepting." Doing otherwise could actually make you sick.

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Slepian is referring to findings from another recent study on secrets, by psychologist Anita Kelly, Ph.D., of Notre Dame University. Kelly had four groups of undergraduates spend 15 minutes writing about a very personal secret. One group was told to write as if no one would ever read it. Another group imagined that someone critical would read what they wrote, and a third group imagined having their entry read by someone accepting and understanding. A control group wrote unemotionally about what they did the day before.

Eight weeks after the exercise, Kelly called everyone back to the lab. She found that, over the two intervening months, the people who'd imagined sharing their secret with an accepting confidant reported fewer illnesses than the people in the other groups. Those who had imagined sharing a secret with a judgmental person got sick more often than any other group. An understanding ear seems to confer significant health benefits, while feeling vulnerable and rejected can wear a person down physically.

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If you’ve got a burning secret you just have to let out, YouBeauty's Relationship Expert David Sbarra, Ph.D. says you don't have to spill everything at once. “Start by talking to them about what it's like to hold the secret—talk about its weight, its impact on you, and how it's making you feel to hold the secret,” he recommends. Once you get the ball rolling with this setup, you'll find it easier to tell your secret more completely.

After the weight has been lifted, you might feel a lot better—mind, body and soul.

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