Bringing out the proverbial “skeleton in the closet” can provide health benefits but the degree of benefit depends on who you confide in, says a new University of Connecticut study.
The study of 400 people, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, found that people who are living with issues such as mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, rape or childhood abuse, reap considerable health benefits from discussing those issues.
However, they experience more health benefits – both psychological and physical – from disclosing the issue to mom, a romantic partner or a best friend than disclosing it to dad, siblings or a close colleague, says Diane Quinn, UConn psychology professor and study author.
“It seems that people expect their mothers to love them unconditionally, and they just assume that she will handle letting the rest of the family – including the father –know about a problem,” says Quinn.
Researchers studied a group of people who averaged 32 years, and who had at least one past experience that they kept hidden from others.
Participants were asked to rate their social networks according to differing degrees of support. Those ranged from a basic level of support such as an offer to go to lunch to the more substantial support such as an offer of a place to stay during an emergency. They were also asked to rate their own physical health – both in terms of actual symptoms of illness and how they perceived their health in general. Finally, they were asked to quantify how “out” they were about their issue within their social network.
Results showed that people who characterized themselves as being the most “out” derived the greatest health benefits especially when the confidantes included mom, a romantic partner or a best friend.
“People have unseen scars,” says co-author Bradley Weisz, a doctoral student in psychology, “and they may be reluctant to talk about their stigmatized identity or experience…but if they do choose to talk about it, then they will gain even more benefit from their social interactions than if they remain silent.”
But while being “out” about a stigmatized identity or a traumatic experience can be helpful in the long run, Quinn says that not everyone has to follow the same path. “It’s a matter of your personal comfort zone,” she says.
Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the study was also co-authored by Michelle Williams, associate vice president of research administration and finance.