The Trauma of Secrecy


Two months ago I based my July blog on Dr. Brene’ Brown’s book Daring Greatly (2012). As is often the case, the authors I read become referral sources for who and what I should be reading professionally, next. That’s exactly what happened when I read Brene’s following paragraph:

“Shame thrives on secret keeping, and when it comes to secrets, there’s some serious science behind the twelve-step program saying, ‘You’re only as sick as your secrets.’ In a pioneering study, psychologist and University of Texas professor James Pennebaker and his colleagues studied what happened when trauma survivors–specifically rape and incest survivors–kept their experiences secret. The research team found that the act of not discussing a traumatic event or confiding it to another person could be more damaging than the actual event. Conversely, when people shared their stories and experiences, their physical health improved, their doctor’s visits decreased, and they showed significant decreases in their stress hormones.”

Note to self: Add James Pennebaker, PhD, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin – to reading list. 

I did read Brene’s next paragraph about Dr. Pennebaker’s research before picking up the iPhone to order his book on Amazon:

“Since his early work on the effects of secret keeping, Pennebaker has focused much of his research on the healing power of expressive writing. In his book Writing to Heal (2004), Pennebaker writes, ‘Since the mid-1980s an increasing number of studies have focused on the value of expressive writing as a way to bring about healing. The evidence is mounting that the act of writing about traumatic experience for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes a day for three or four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health. Emotional writing can also people’s sleep habits, work efficiency, and how they connect with others.'”

Brene’ adds: “Shame resilience is a practice and like Pennebaker,  I think writing about our shame experiences is an incredibly powerful component of the practice.”

The only–but extremely important–caveat, I would add (with Drs. Pennebaker and Brown’s professional blessings, I’m sure) is that some trauma processing should ONLY be done with a mental health professional. As one reviewer put it: “We have defenses such as repression for good reasons.”

So, I placed my order. Expressive Writing; Words that Heal (2014) is the updated and revised version of Pennebaker’s 2004 edition; co-authored with John Evans, Ed.D. In the preface, Dr. Pennebaker, a “research psychologist” tells how he:

“accidentally discovered the power of writing in an experiment…conducted in the mid-1980s. In the study, people were asked to write for four consecutive days, fifteen minutes per day, about either a traumatic experience or a superficial event. To my surprise, those who wrote about traumas went to the doctor less often in the following months, and many said their writing changed their lives. Ever since then, I’ve been devoted to understanding the mysteries off emotional writing.”

While “emotional writing”(or its oft-used research term, “expressive writing”) is obviously the purport of the research, and Pennebacker’s book, I became intrigued by the additional traumatic impact of secrecy cited earlier by Brene’ Brown. Pennebaker writes:

“When my students and I studied the aftereffects of traumas, we observed the same things (the Adverse Childhood Experiences [ACE] ) researchers did.” (Note: See my July 5, 2015 blog regarding the ACE Study.) Pennebaker continues:

“But we also found something more striking. Having a traumatic experience was certainly bad for people in many ways, but people who had a trauma and kept that traumatic experience secret were much worse off. Not talking to others about a trauma, we learned, placed people at even higher risk for major and minor illness compared to people who did talk about their traumas.

The dangers of keeping secrets were most apparent for major life traumas. In a series of surveys, several hundred college students and people who worked at a large corporation were asked to complete a brief questionnaire about traumas that had occurred earlier in their lives. The respondents were asked if prior to the age of seventeen they had experienced the death of a family member, the divorce of parents, a sexual trauma, physical abuse, or some other event that had ‘changed their personality.’ For each  item, they were also queried as to whether they had talked to anyone in detail about this experience.

First, over half of the people we surveyed reported having experienced a major trauma in their life prior to the age of seventeen (Keep in mind that these were generally middle and upper-middle class students and adults.) Second, the people who had had any kind of major trauma before the age of seventeen went to physicians for illness at twice the rate of people who had not had a trauma. Finally, among those who had traumas, those who kept their traumas secret went to physicians almost forty percent more often than those who openly talked about their traumas.

Later research projects from multiple labs confirmed these results….Not talking about important issues in your life poses a significant health risk.”

Huh. “Not talking about important issues in your life poses a significant health risk.” My brother would agree that we had loving parents. We never doubted our parents’ love for us. Although I can’t speak for my brother, I don’t remember really talking to anyone about the negative effects Mom and Dad’s troubled marriage was having on me. What I do remember, vividly, is being taken to the doctor for what seemed like an inordinate amount of times –  for stomach aches.

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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