Is the strain of keeping secrets -- your own and others' -- too much for the mind and body to bear?

Photos.com/Thinkstock

If you have ever said "It's eating me up inside" or "If I don't tell someone, I'll explode," you've experienced some of the power of secrets. Merriam-Webster has not one, but five definitions for the word secret, and some of the closely related words include hidden, undercover, closemouthed and confidential.

Keeping and telling secrets must be a widespread and common practice if the word itself needs so many nuanced descriptions; maybe a surplus of ways to justify keeping secrets? Origins of the word "secret" date back to the 14th-century Latin word "secernere," which means "to separate, distinguish," and a secret can certainly do that; it can divide and break relationships, as well as set apart something mysterious and unknown. But can secrets hurt a person -- physically and emotionally?

A wave of Web sites, phone services and apps have sprung up throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries as forums and outlets to confess and spill secrets. Some Web sites publish anonymous declarations for the world to see, all with the approval of those confessing. These sites include some extremely personal and often graphic tell-alls, as well as just some mundane gut-spilling about guilty acts.

Television talk shows have been providing sensational dramas of real, ordinary and even many famous people telling all to audiences in the millions. Even the Roman Catholic Church sanctioned the use of an iPhone app that encourages individuals to prepare for the actual confession booth by first unloading their sins privately via text -- an endorsement intended to draw young people back to the real confessional [source: Beck]. No iPhone? No problem; the PenanceProject is available for Android devices. Even those with just a land line can pay a small service charge to confess to an answering machine.

Not only are there many ways to describe secrets, now you can share them person-to-person, in cyberspace and by phone -- but why? Is the strain of keeping secrets -- your own and others' -- too much for the mind and body to bear? Is it natural and necessary to let secrets out, to get them off our chests before they crush us?

Let's look at what happens to us mentally and physically when we find out someone's been hiding something from us and when we hide our own secrets from them. Will we actually explode if we keep a secret in? "I don't know if I should tell you this, but …"