November 15, 2012
Sexual Secrets Make You Physically Sick
By Linda Hatch, PhD
"You are only as sick as your secrets" is a common saying among recovering sex addicts and other kinds of addicts as well. What this implies is that you are keeping something about yourself a secret, like your sexual acting out behavior, because on some level you feel shame and guilt about it.
You believe that what you are doing is reprehensible and that you are unworthy.
In other words, it is accepted that your secrets are a symptom of your psychological sickness, your low self concept. The more secrets, the more sickness. The implication is that once you quit keeping things secret from others, you will become healthier.
Turns out there is a scientific basis to this idea.
The topic of secrets and brain chemistry was recently discussed on NPR's Fresh Air via an interview with neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman.
The battle in the brain
"You have competing populations in the brain - one part that wants to tell something and one part that doesn't," he (Eagleman) tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And the issue is that we're always cussing at ourselves or getting angry at ourselves or cajoling ourselves. ... What we're seeing here is that there are different parts of the brain that are battling it out. And the way that that battle tips, determines your behavior."
So keeping sexual behavior secret, especially behavior that is as all consuming as that of many sex addicts, means continual struggle with yourself. The internal dissonance and lack of a sense of personal integrity is draining.
Dr. Eagleman is arguing that this is a real physiological battle going on in the different parts of the brain.
The hormonal consequences of secrets
The struggle involved in keeping a secret is stressful. This means that your brain will register the fact that there are increased levels of stress hormones going through your bloodstream as a result of this struggle. Your brain does not enjoy this stress, as Dr. Eagelman points out, and there is pressure from one part of your brain to get rid of it by telling the secret.
Sex addicts live with the stress of keeping a whole section of their life secret from people they see every day and care about. The fact that their brains are marinated in stress hormones due to keeping secrets (over and above the effects of the compulsive behavior) can cause an impairment in the addict's ability to stay healthy and function well.
The health benefits of opening up about secrets
Research by James W. Pennebaker at the University of Texas Austin has been using blood tests and EEG's to measure the results of letting go of secrets. He has found that whether secrets were confessed to another person out loud or were merely written down privately and destroyed later, there were "tangible health benefits, both physical and mental." The research found not only improved relationships, but better sleep and improved immune systems.
The warning label
When is letting go of your secrets harmful? When you do not consider the effects on another person. There are a myriad of ways that a sex addict can confess his or her addiction to a partner that are damaging and hurtful to them. In sex addiction treatment a great deal of care is taken around the issue of disclosure. The disclosure of sex addiction to a loved one should be done with planning and professional help. There is a "Partner's Disclosure Worksheet" which the partner may be asked to fill out. The general idea is that sex addicts should not disclose to a partner something that the partner does not want to know.
Disclosure in general has many aspects which warrant fuller discussion, including what to disclose to children and other family members and what to tell other people you know or work with. If at all possible, these are matters to discuss fully with a sex addiction specialist before you bare your soul.