In 12-step communities there’s a saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” When I first heard the expression, I thought it meant secrets, along with the things you’re ashamed of, and/or the emotions and memories you’re trying to repress, will drive you to act out in your addiction. While that’s true, I’ve also learned recently that secrets can make you physically sicker. I don’t mean the stomachache when you’re hiding something from your best friend. I mean arthritis and cardiovascular issues.
In a meta-analysis, meaning a study that looked at numerous other studies, Marcus Mund and Kristin Mitte found those who repressed their emotions had significant associations with cancer and high blood pressure. There’s also a study from 1999 when Dr. Joshua Smyth assigned asthma and rheumatoid arthritis patients to write either about the most stressful event of their lives or about emotionally neutral topics. He and his colleagues found the patients who wrote about stressful life experiences had clinically relevant changes in health status at four months compared with those who wrote about emotionally neutral topics. The gains were beyond those attributable to the standard medical care that all participants were receiving, according to the authors.
Meaning, just by writing about stressful events, by sharing their secrets, patients with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis were clinically, measurably, better off than people who kept their thoughts and feelings bottled up. The effects may have lasted longer than four months, but Smythe and his colleagues didn’t follow up to find out.
As someone who is extremely psycho-somatic, meaning I have a strong link between my mind and body, I already know this information. However, what is news to me is the measurable effects. Not only do people feel better emotionally when they express their internal landscape, but researchers have demonstrated their blood pressure drops, their heart rate decreases, and pain levels decline. That’s really freaking cool if you ask me. I love when science confirms something I know to be true anecdotally.
Why am I writing this post? I think it’s because there are likely people out there saying to themselves, “The past is the past. I’m over it. I don’t need to talk about it. Why dwell on something you can’t change?” For those people, my response is, “You can’t change the past, but you can change how it’s affecting your present. How it’s impacting your body. Expressing a stressful event, even if it’s just in a journal, will help you feel better physically. And you don’t have to take my word for it – researchers have found that to be true as well.”
Not only researchers, but spiritual teachers. In fact, mine says, “It is natural for all living beings to search for a way to express themselves fully. Sometimes this expression takes the form of crude physical pleasure, and sometimes that of subtle psychic pleasure.” He also says, “Repression directly affects the subconscious mind. Gradually the psychic structure is severely damaged, and finally the mind is totally changed. The result is that people are inflicted with a defeatist psychology and an inferiority complex.”
That doesn’t sound great to me. I’d rather be strong physically and mentally. I want to feel happy and free. Who knew that could happen with something as simple as writing in a journal for 15 minutes?
I dream of a world where we recognize repressing feelings and past events takes a toll on our physical, mental, and emotional health. A world where we understand it’s our innate desire to express. A world where we realize we’ll feel stronger and happier if we express what’s going on for us. A world where we understand we are only as sick as our secrets.
Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.