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When is keeping a secret bad for your health?

A recent study into secrets and stress found that ‘expressive’ writing can help

HOUSTON – Not long after graduating from college in 2000, Lacy Johnson said she was abducted by an ex-boyfriend and locked in a soundproofed basement room, her life threatened. Johnson managed to escape with hours, but she didn’t talk about what happened to her for more than a decade.

“I didn’t tell people anything. There was just a silence around it,” Johnson said. “I wanted to go on with my life.”

Johnson’s decision to keep this dark chapter in her life a secret is common, according to James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Very often after an upsetting experience we almost go into this magical thinking. If I don’t talk about it, it will go away. Talking about it will just bring it back up, which is completely false. Because it is there,” Pennebaker said. “You still think about it. You still dream about it. You still live with it day to day.”

‘Bodies under stress'

Harboring secrets is more than a daily distraction, Pennebaker said. It can be bad for your health.

“We know when people have a traumatic experience and they don’t talk to other people about it, they are at greater risk for a variety of health problems,” he said, including high blood pressure, immune issues, more frequent colds and higher rates or progression of cancer — all markers of bodies under stress.

In studying inmates, students and veterans, Pennebaker has found a simple prescription that can be life-changing: “expressive” writing.

In his lab, Pennebaker asks subjects to write down their deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of their lives, spending 15 to 20 minutes writing in three or four sessions.

“The basic idea here is when people put upsetting experiences into words it helps them to organize them,” he said. “It helps them to put these experiences into some kind of meaningful framework, and very often these people are dealing with these major upsetting experiences that they can’t talk to their spouses about; [that] they can’t talk to their kids about.”

Pennebaker said he has read accounts of all sorts of horrific events: murder, rape, war atrocities, suicide attempts, life-changing injuries.

“We send them into a room, and maybe a quarter of them will cry. Many people will tell us they’ve never done this before, and they’ve never told anyone about it. But once they start writing often it just floods out. It’s a powerful, emotional experience for many people.” he said.

Pennebaker co-authored a recent study in the Journal of Traumatic Stress that found writing especially helped returning veterans readjust to civilian life. The soldiers who wrote “expressively” – expressing deep thoughts and emotions – as opposed to simply writing factually or not writing at all, showed greater reductions in physical complaints and anger and were even more likely to hold jobs.

Pennebaker said people don’t even need to share what they’ve written with someone else to benefit from the exercise.

“When you’re finished tear it up. But the point is, just putting down what’s going on in your life in a truly honest way because this is for you and nobody else. That can be incredibly beneficial,” he said.

Hospital writing

Houston Methodist Hospital holds a writing workshop for employees. Gastroenterologist Gilchun Ergun says it helps her process the stress that comes with her job.

“You know when you’re taking care of patients you are the sponge for all of their problems,” Ergun said. “And when you … see 20 patients a day, that’s 20 people’s problems that you’re absorbing. And in a textbook, it says you might let go at 5 o’clock. But I’d say most people don’t let go at 5 o’clock, so it is stressful.”

By writing, Ergun said she is able to release that stress.

“Making time to think and reflect on something is really, really important,” she said.

Ergun’s first story for the workshop, “Twelve Breaths a Minute,” was published in 2012 in the non-fiction anthology “At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die.”

‘The Other Side’

Lacy Johnson’s alleged abductor fled to his native Venezuela shortly after she escaped, but she still lived in a state of constant fear.

“I felt afraid all the time, not only of the person who did this to me, but I felt afraid of the knowledge that secret held over me and my life,” she said. “I just experienced a second version of myself that, in reality, I am an afraid person. All the time. Every day.”

Johnson, now the director of academic initiatives at the University of Houston’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, eventually decided to write about what happened.

What she wrote became “The Other Side,” named a National Book Critics Circle finalist for autobiography in 2014.

“I am a writer, and I use writing to understand my experience. I use writing to understand the world. It’s how I think. It’s how I answer questions. And I had a big question about what had happened to me and how I could stop letting it control my life,” she said. Writing the book did that.

“I felt in control of the story, and I felt empowered by writing it down,” Johnson said.


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