Is Keeping a Secret Hazardous to Your Health?


Whether it’s about your racy past in college or something your child’s best friend confided and begged not be told, many families have a lot of deep dark secrets floating around the recesses of their brains. But those secrets – especially the really juicy ones – can be making you or your loved ones sick, threatening not only the brain’s health but your entire well-being.

Neuroscience experts says it’s biologically healthy to confess secrets rather than hold them in, as secrets put the brain in an awkwardly compromised position. When you keep a secret, your brain’s cingulate cortex, the part of the brain involved in emotional responses, desperately wants to tell the truth. This “logical lobe” tells the rest of the brain to dish the secretive dirt in order for it to move on to other more important things like learning and keeping you running smoothly. But standing in the way is your orbital prefrontal cortex that’s simulating just how bad telling the secret will be – and all the possible negative outcomes – if you do unburden yourself of the suppressed news.

“The prefrontal cortex is involved in decision-making, complex thought and deception which would then cause a response in the cingulate if there is inconsistency and the ensuing complications of an emotional burden,” says Gopal Chopra, M.D., a neurosurgeon and CEO of PingMD mobile app.

If the prefrontal cortex wins the war raging in your brain, your body ramps up production of stress hormones. Every time you think about your secret, those hormones surge throughout your body, wreaking havoc on things like blood pressure, memory issues, weight gain and other health issues. The bigger or riskier you perceive the secret to be, the more intense the fight in your head and resulting anxiety.

When a person feels anxiety or fear, the “fight or flight” hormonal response snaps into action and ramps up production of stress hormones, says Chopra. “Those hormones include norepinephrine, which affects parts of the brain where attention and responses are controlled.” Cortisol is another hormone released in stressful situations. The increase in production of these hormones subsides when stress or a perceived threat goes away. However, Chopra says if the stress or stimulus continues, so will the release of cortisol.

In short, keeping a secret is as much a war of the lobes as it is a question of ethics or morals. It’s also a health risk.

“When you’re stressed, sleep may be disturbed, which could lead to emotional mood swings and a propensity to be ill-tempered or lose your cool. You may also have difficulty with memory and learning,” says Allen Towfigh, M.D., a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at NY Presbyterian Hospital/Cornell Medical Center. “The excess release of cortisol will cause a host of other ailments including possible increase or loss of appetite and disruption of metabolism.”

Spiking levels of cortisol have also been linked to a weakened immune system, osteoporosis, increased blood pressure and a loss of collagen in the skin, which can lead to deeper wrinkles and loss of elasticity.

So what is it about human nature that makes us keep secrets despite the risk? Secrets are a part of human nature. “We keep secrets because, even when there is risk involved in keeping a secret, we believe there is greater risk in the disclosure of a secret. Simply, we decide that the disclosure of the secret will be more painful to us than keeping it hidden. So, ‘it’ stays a secret,” says Peter Zafirides, MD, a psychiatrist in Columbus, Ohio.

Should you keep a “good” secret? Maybe, since not all secrets are bad, Zafirides says. Some things are important to keep secret, like a present, surprise party, etc. “As long as a secret isn’t hurting you or anyone else, or isn’t perceived by you as being a bad thing, keeping some secrets doesn’t have to be hazardous to your health.”

Managing the stress

Not sure you should keep a secret?

Zafirides says one way to manage the stress of keeping a secret is asking yourself if the information truly warrants privacy. “Take time to analyze the reasons that you are keeping something secret and the consequences of disclosing it,” he says.

Consider that others’ reactions to a secret are often much less dramatic than we imagine they will be. “Assess the potential implications of disclosing something very embarrassing,” says Zafirides. “Many people find the reasons we may keep some secrets earlier in life may not be relevant as we get older.”

It may be helpful to you write out the pros and cons of keeping a secret, including why you are keeping it in. “There is no real physiologic explanation to this, but behavioral studies have shown dramatic reduction in stress hormone levels, blood pressure and mental health by doing this,” says Chopra.

Weigh out the detriments and benefits of coming clean … honesty may be the best policy after all. 


Gina Roberts-Grey
About Gina Roberts-Grey

Gina Roberts-Grey is an award-winning writer who admits she’s not so good at keeping secrets.

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