Related to emotional expressiveness is the topic of disclosure, or telling someone about a private aspect of oneself. Many theorists have suggested that keeping things to ourselves, not opening up to other people, may be a source of stress and ultimately may lead to psychological distress and physical disease. These theorists have further argued that being open to others with our feelings may be curative, that talk therapy may work in part because through it we uncover secrets and reveal what we have been keeping to ourselves.
Psychologist James Pennebaker has been a pioneer in researching the ef fects of disclosure. In a typical study , he asks participants to think of an upsetting or traumatic event that has happened to them, something they have not discussed with anyone. He asks them to write down these secrets. People write about many dif ferent unpleasant events, such as various embarrassing moments, sexual indiscretions, illegal or immoral behaviors, humiliations, and so on. It is interesting that all participants quickly come up with a secret that they have been keeping. This suggests that probably all of us have some secrets.
Pennebaker argues that not discussing traumatic, negative, or upsetting events can lead to problems. It takes physical ener gy, he says, to inhibit the thoughts and feelings associated with such events. In other words, it is not easy to keep a secret to ourselves, and keeping something in, especially if it is a major trauma, is upsetting and takes a lot of energy. Over time, this stress builds and, like all stress, can increase the likelihood of stress-related problems, such as trouble sleeping, irritability , physical symptoms (e.g., stomachaches and headaches), and even illness resulting from lowered immune system functioning. Telling the secret, according to Pennebaker , relieves this stress. Confronting the traumatic memory by telling someone or even writing about it releases the person from the work of keeping the secret.
Pennebaker and his colleagues have conducted many studies on the topic of disclosure. In one study (Pennebaker & O'Heeron, 1984), they contacted participants who had lost a spouse through accident or suicide. Clearly, such a sudden and complete loss of a loved one through an unexpected and traumatic death must have a huge impact on the surviving spouse (recall that death of a spouse was the most stressful life event on the Holmes and Rahe list). The survivors were asked how much they discussed the tragedy with friends, family , or other helping professionals, such as a priest, minister, or therapist. The researchers also did a thorough assessment of the participants' health since the death of the spouse. They discovered that, the more the participants had talked about the tragedy with others, the better their subsequent health. In other words, those who kept the trauma to themselves tended to suf fer more health problems than those who disclosed their feelings to others.
In another study on this topic (Pennebaker , 1990), the participants were college students randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was asked to recall and write about an experience that they found distressing. The other group was asked to write about a trivial topic, such as what they normally ate for breakfast. The students wrote about their assigned topic for 15 minutes each night for four consecutive nights. The participants writing about the traumatic event reported feeling more distress and discomfort while writing, and measures of blood pressure taken while writing suggested they were feeling more stress than was the trivial topic group. Six months later , the participants were contacted again and a health history was obtained. Students who had written about a trauma for those four days had had fewer illnesses in the subsequent six months, compared with the students who had written about trivial topics. Moreover , student records from the health services showed that the participants who had written about trauma had indeed gone to the campus health center less often than the participants who had written about trivial topics. Interestingly , just the act of writing about an upsetting event, even if no one ever reads the writing, may have a beneficial e fect on health.
In another study by Pennebaker and colleagues (Pennebaker , Colder, & Sharp, 1990), the participants were just starting college. For three nights in a row , they were asked to write about their dif ficulties and their feelings about the challenges of leavin family and friends at home and starting an independent life at college. Other participants (the control group) wrote about trivial topics. Health measures were then obtained after the students had been in college for at least a semester: the students who had written about their feelings and problems had gone to the student health center fewer times during the subsequent semester than had those who had witten about trivial topics.
Other studies show that people who keep unpleasant information about themselves a secret are more likely to develop anxiety or depression than are those who tell someone (Larson & Chastain, 1990). Often, psychotherapists will ask their clients, especially those who have experienced a trauma or another extreme event, to talk or write about that trauma. Some psychologists even recommend keeping a diary of the events in one's life and how one is reacting to those events. Such a daily self-disclosure helps one put one's feelings into perspective and make some sense out of the events in one' s life. The process provides insight into oneself and the events in one' s life.
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