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Anxiety

Why Keeping Secrets Heightens Anxiety and Depression

Can keeping a secret be detrimental to mental and physical health?

Key points

  • People are predisposed to reveal they have secrets to demonstrate they are superior to those who do not.
  • Keeping a secret can cause emotional distress depending on its sensitivity. It can trigger depression, anxiety, and poor overall health.
  • Most people reveal secrets to those they like and trust, decreasing the preoccupation to think about keeping the secret.
Keira Burton/Pexels
Source: Keira Burton/Pexels

Keeping secrets is hard to do. Ben Franklin observed that three people could keep a secret if two of them are dead. Self-disclosure is a basic human tendency. Information is power. The more information a person possesses, the greater the illusion of power becomes.

Secrets equate to power. If I know a secret and you do not, I am more powerful because I possess privileged information. People exert power by revealing they have a secret.

Keeping a secret consists of two parts. First, you must not reveal you possess secret information and, second, you must not reveal the secret itself. Telling someone you have a secret is an ego-rewarding experience. If you do not disclose possession of secret information, then you cannot exert power over those who do not. Therefore, people are predisposed to reveal they have secrets to demonstrate they are superior to those who do not.

Keeping secrets requires deliberate effort and control. If you tell someone not to think about a white horse, they will have difficulty not thinking about a white horse. They will spend almost as much time thinking about it as opposed to not.

Keeping secrets causes emotional distress depending on its nature and sensitivity. It can trigger depression, anxiety, and poor overall personal health. To maintain secrecy, it must be on constant guard not to wittingly or unwittingly reveal itself, which causes stress. For example, if a person cheats on a significant other, they might feel guilt and shame. A secret that instills guilt or shame is more likely to infringe on a person’s recurring thoughts.

This constant vigilance creates a secrecy spiral. When the secret comes into the consciousness, the person must repress it, and the guilt or shame accompanies the clandestine memory. The secret keeper must reassert thought repression to avoid revealing the secret or experiencing a reoccurrence of guilt or shame. The secret must be put under constant surveillance to prevent inadvertent disclosure. Inevitably, the thought of the secret will reemerge, activating the ever-tightening secrecy spiral, increasing anxiety and stress.

If it is detrimental to disclose the secret, then revealing it feels not possible. The secret keeper is left in a constant state of anxiety with accompanying guilt or shame.

To cope with the anxiety, a secret keeper might self-medicate. They may increase the use of tobacco or alcohol, leading to overall health risks. Anxiety causes digestive problems, increasing the use of over-the-counter antacid remedies. The secret keeper may also experience depression and lack of sleep or both, which could increase legal or illegal drug use.

To relieve anxiety, secret keepers feel compelled to tell someone. Most people reveal secrets to those they like and trust therefore decreasing the preoccupation to think about keeping the secret.

But some reveal to perfect strangers. On long airplane rides, I often hear deep personal secrets. Revealing secrets to perfect strangers is ideal because secret keepers will never see the stranger again. Regardless of who the secret is shared with, revealing the secret significantly reduces the anxiety level of the secret keepers. In many instances, secret keepers seek absolution for legal or moral transgressions from strangers. I’m all ears. What’s your secret?

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