What do secrets do to your mind and body?

This topic has been on my mind since an experience of working within an inpatient clinic in Cape Town. In this clinic, we ran therapy and process groups for patients who were struggling with various types of addictions. In this space, the group explored a number of common experiences such as family dynamics around using, who in the family knew, who didn’t and why etc. Whenever a client would struggle disclosing to family, a partner, or to admit a secret to themselves, we would talk about this as a group. Patients would support and encourage one another about the importance of honesty in the interest of staying clean and to help in recovery. In this space, I first heard the phrase, “secrets keep you sick.” What did this mean? 

In the addiction/ recovery context it meant that if you hold a secret, whether it is a traumatic secret, a secret about your use of a substance, or not addressing something, it would stand in the way of your healing and recovery which often led to relapses. It was an incredibly vulnerable and difficult space to share one’s secrets, but the encouragement from the group helped many reach a point where they could speak various truths, and we could all witness the incredible relief and catharsis that would follow. This led me to think about secrets in general, what type of secrets do we hold? What does this do to the body? What is it doing to our psyche? 

What type of secrets do we keep?

There are various types of secrets and truths that we hold; and it does not mean that every truth needs to be something made public, however what are the psychological impacts if you cannot share your own truth without fear of consequences or judgement?

I imagine different truths or secrets we hold could be; 

  • Family secrets, affairs, things you shouldn’t have seen, family traumas
  • Sexual traumas; rape, sexual abuse, abusive relationships
  • Secrets and truths around sexuality
  • Addiction; fear of being rejected; hiding your use; not telling family incase you relapse to avoid the cycle of guilt and shame; cycle of lying and needing to cover up, hiding/holding a traumatic experience
  • Any type of traumatic experience or loss
  • Avoidance of vulnerability; maintaining the impression that everything is okay and rejecting the truth that one is struggling. Imagine holding the facade of “doing well”; when you put up a front to act like everything is fine around everyone else, but you are not coping. Imagine having to keep up the façade, having to keep the truth to yourself because others are depending on you. 

Then I ask and wonder about where that secret goes, what is that secret doing to your mind and body? What is happening in your psyche when you are having to consciously or unconsciously repress, reject or deny that truth or experience? How does that impact those around you? In my experience as a psychologist, I often meet people once these experiences are manifesting psychologically and in turn, impacting their mental health.

If we imagine the amount of psychic energy that goes into holding secrets, what do you imagine this would do to your psyche and emotions. Equally, when the secret or truth pushes towards the surface of our experience and the facade is at risk of being destroyed, the risk of vulnerability can often cause one to fall apart. With a constant psychic conflict between the impact of truth, lies and secrets on the way we are perceived in the world, it can start to manifest psychologically and also physically (psychosomatic symptoms). 

How can all of this make us sick, and in which ways?

Often when one presents in therapy, the stressors are very real, however the psychological conflicts are not always clear initially.

If we are having to reject an experience, a truth, a secret, a part of ourselves – it contributes to psychological stress and functioning. One can feel detached, uncomfortable and feeling like everything could fall apart at any moment. Our body might show us the stress we are under before we realize it, for example having difficulties in sleep, developing anxiety related physical symptoms like stomach aches, nausea. In a book by Bessel van der Kolk, he speaks about the impact of trauma on our bodies in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. This is very real; psychological trauma, conflicts or distress can reveal itself through physical manifestations within our bodies. 

To use myself as an example, this wasn’t a secret per se, but just an example of how my distress  manifested physically. When I was a child, I was quite anxious about going to school for the first time and I remember being up all night the night before, throwing up. Personally, I now know that if there is some type of distress for me, I become nauseous. I remember that memory so clearly and it is therefore a marker for myself, to monitor my own stress. If I’m feeling anxious or nauseous, I can watch my body in order to grasp an understanding of what is going on psychologically and address this healthily. 

Another example was when I was roughly 17 years old, I started to get a rash on my back. The rash developed further, and I was soon diagnosed with shingles. The doctor mentioned that the condition was stress-related. At that particular time in my life, my mother had been admitted to hospital and it was a stressful time, and perhaps academic stress and pressure for my matric year started to take their toll. At that point in time, I was not comfortable speaking to people about what was going on, I held the experience to myself. In retrospect it all makes sense as to how the diagnosis came about, and that my body shows me when I’m distressed. Sleep is another marker for me as I generally sleep very well and I have quite an unchanging sleep routine. So, when my sleep is disrupted, I can generally point out what has caused it and I know the signs that my body shows me of when I need to reach out for help from others.

What can I do about this? 

This blog is really a reminder that secrets can cause psychological stress which can manifest physically and make us sick. And, often this distress manifests when we feel we cannot share our struggles with others. 

Ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Do you know your body? 
  • Do you know what your markers are that indicate distress? 
  • What is your body telling you? 
  • Is there some sort of psychological stress that manifests physically for you? 
  • Is there a secret/truth that you are keeping because you feel like you cannot own or express it elsewhere? 
  • Have you been physically sick for a long time without being able to reach a medical explanation or resolution? 

We need to be aware that although we may not want to express our secrets/truths, our body often does it for us. My advice to you is to get to know yourself and your body better. Prioritize treating your body well and make an active effort to practice self-care, so that you can quickly come to realize when something is off or unusual. Listen when your body tells you something is wrong, and reach out to your support structures and health professionals when you are struggling. 

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Amy Glover is a practicing Clinical Psychologist based in Cape Town. She has her masters degree in Clinical Psychology and Community Counselling (cum laude) from the University of Stellenbosch. She divides her time between a private practice in Vredehoek, Cape Town and developing practitioner-led resources to equip professionals to navigate online platforms for mental health services. She is passionate about preventative mental health and works with individuals and couples. Amy Glover is available to see clients online for therapy.

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