The Secrets of Just About Everything

Perhaps one of the most-used (or overused) phrases in advertising and headline writing is "The secrets of …" We can get inside the "Secrets of Google," the "Secrets to Long Life," the "Secrets to a Happy Marriage or Childhood or Bachelor Life or Whatever." And yet it's no secret, really, that this kind of caption must sell if people keep using it to capture readers and TV viewers, right? Just don't tell anyone.

Keeping secrets: The truth hurts?

Not all secrets are bad: surprise parties, romantic crushes and guilty pleasures (do you really need to share your love of Spanish soap operas with your rugby team?). They can be harmless and even healthy. Some researchers conclude that young children and adolescents learn a lot about their own identities by keeping some things to themselves; the difficult line to walk is whether kids should tell their parents everything [source: Donovan].

There is a long history of categorizing secrets into white lies, big lies and "if it doesn't hurt anyone" omissions or truth-sharing. In an age of "don't ask, don't tell" and "do these jeans make me look fat?" a little perspective helps: There are consequences -- large and small -- to keeping and telling secrets, whether among friends or through Facebook or YouTube.

Anita E. Kelly, a doctor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame has studied and written a lot about secrets. While she hasn't found a direct link between keeping secrets and being physically sick, she and researchers did find that those who withhold a lot or are "self-concealers" do show anxiety, depression, and overall body aches and pains. Those who confessed hidden secrets did get health benefits, but those who held them didn't necessarily get sick as a direct result. To sum up Kelly and her team: "Quite simply … secretive people also tend to be sick people … I don't think it's much of a stretch to say that being secretive could be linked to being symptomatic at a biological level" [source: Jaffe].

In the 1970s, James Pennebraker, a psychologist from the University of Texas, also found that "people hiding traumatic secrets showed more incidents of hypertension, influenza, even cancer," but what about secrets that aren't "traumatic?" [source: Jaffe].

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, also at the University of Texas, has found that secrets cause the brain to kind of fight with itself. One part of the brain wants to tell the secret and the other wants to keep it hidden. Writing down secrets has shown to relieve this stress on the brain by releasing stress hormones, while holding secrets in keeps the stress ever-present [source: Eagleman].

Stress is probably one of the biggest side effects of hiding secrets, and those in professions such as the Secret Service can attest to the drain of living two lives, one of them hidden. Children who are taught to keep family secrets, such as a parent's addiction, affair or acts of abuse, for instance, also carry the stress of a double life that can actually "freeze development" and leave them right where they were emotionally when asked to start withholding part of their lives [source: Imber-Black].

Keeping a secret often becomes less about protecting people and more about becoming overly preoccupied with the "thing" or maintaining the double, secret life. It takes over as an "unhealthy obsession" for our own secrets and those we keep for others [source: Jaffe]. It can be a lot of work to maintain and live that way.

But the truth hurts too, doesn't it? Before letting it all out, consider that some people may have their fingers in their ears screaming "I can't hear you! I can't hear you!" We'll look at the potential damage and proven benefits of telling secrets, next.