James W. Pennebaker is a social psychologist and a Centennial Liberal Arts Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the health consequences of secrets. A pioneer of writing therapy, he has researched the link between language and recovering from trauma and been “recognized by the American Psychological Association as one of the top researchers on trauma, disclosure, and health.”
In his books, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others (New York: Morrow, 1990) and Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (New York: Guilford, 1997), he speaks of hardships in both childhood and adulthood, including a death of a family member, divorce, sexual and physical assault, living with someone with a substance use disorder or mentally ill parent, as well as other traumas. In his research, he assesses how extensively participants talk about these events.
The findings of his studies are quite clear. Those who did not disclose their traumas were more likely to suffer both minor and major health problems such as ulcers, flu, headaches, cancer, and high blood pressure. The cause of the silence about the events varies from person to person and includes some or all of the following: feelings of guilt, shame, a valiant attempt to move on and forget the past, fear that no one would believe them or could understand what they lived through, an attempt to protect their family and friends from being upset, or a resistance to reliving the pain of the trauma.
Pennebaker discovered that it was not the nature of the adversity, nor was it the length of time that the difficulty persisted, that predicted health problems. No matter the nature of the problem, it was a commitment to remain silent and to not disclose or confide with another that turned out to be more damaging than having experienced the events. His research illustrates how therapeutic it is to disclose disturbing thoughts, emotions, and memories. By attempting to deny or conceal mental suffering, it does not fade away.
The suffering manifests as disturbances in the body.
Pennebaker makes a strong recommendation that no matter how long concealment has taken place, it is never too late to find a confidant to express both the details and emotions surrounding the difficult circumstances. When the commitment to conceal converts to a commitment to reveal, the disclosure releases a great deal of stress that comes from the attempt to suppress memories and emotions. The “talking cure” helps us make sense of what we have been experiencing. No matter what the intense emotions can be, including but not limited to guilt, shame, fear, sadness, depression, grief, feeling disoriented, abnormal, or crazy, these feelings can lighten.
We can disclose to a therapist, support group, clergy, family member, or friend.
If we have a trusting partnership, the depth of that trust can be utilized to bring the dark material out of the shadow to meet the light of day. By disclosing the trauma, we don’t feel that we are isolated to carry the heaviness that accompanies difficult circumstances. It is only when we disclose our secrets that we can be reassured that others have suffered in similar ways. We are no longer alone. By sharing our inner life, we make bearable that which was formerly unbearable, thereby not only improving our emotional well-being and creating a closer bond with our confidant, but also making a big contribution to enhanced health.
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