In childhood, at some point or another, we all swore to secrecy under the phrase “cross my heart and hope to die.” Keeping a secret, however, whether it’s ours or someone else’s has not only an emotional but physical toll as well. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the emotional load of a secret can be a real physical burden influencing our perceptual judgements, and even behavior.

Some of us loose lips are judged for betraying someone in a matter of minutes after being confided in. However, while revealing a secret can hurt, so can keeping it. “The more you feel preoccupied by a secret and are thinking about it, the more you are using your personal resources — cognitive and motivational — the less energy you feel you have available to pursue other tasks,” said Michael Slepian, lead author of the study and a researcher at Columbia Business School, in the news release. “You see things around you as more challenging. It’s the same outcome as when you are carrying a heavy burden.”

In an effort to explore the physical burden of secrecy, Slepian and his colleagues conducted a series of studies asking over 400 participants to think of either a “preoccupying” secret, such as regarding money, sexual orientation, or a health concern; or a “non-preoccupying” secret that isn’t of daily concern. The participants were then shown a photo of a hill and asked to judge its steepness.

The findings revealed those participants who were asked to recall a preoccupying secret judged the hill to be steeper and more challenging compared to those who recalled a non-preoccupying secret. This suggests keeping preoccupying secrets can influence perceptual judgements and even behavior. This can trickle down to our personal life and work life, too. “Being preoccupied by a secret at work can be demotivating,” Slepian said. “And we know if you are less motivated, you perform less well.”

Slepian’s previous research does support the relief revealing a secret can provide. In a 2014 study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Slepian and his colleagues found when you talk about your secret, you start to process it, make sense of it, and learn how to cope with it. This reduces your preoccupation with the secret and therefore lessens the emotional and physical burden. In addition, writing out the pros and cons of holding onto this secret can lessen its negative effects.

Neuroscientists also believe it’s better for us to confess to our secrets, or refuse to keep someone’s secret, for our brain health. Holding on to secrets puts the brain in a compromised position by not allowing the cingulate cortex — wired to tell the truth — to perform its natural functions, and leading the cortex to become stressed. Gopal Chopra, neurosurgeon and chief executive of PINGMD, an app to facilitate communication between doctors and patients, emphasizes when we hold on to a secret, the brain’s orbital prefrontal cortex — wired to help in decision-making, complex thought, and deception — will tell the mind it’s bad to keep the secret.

This will result in “the complications of emotional burden,” Chopra told Forbes. The prefrontal cortex will pressure the cingulate cortex, which will lead the body to produce stress hormones and trigger anxiety or fear. Thinking about the deeply held secret will cause a surge in cortisol levels, affect memory, blood pressure, gastrointestinal tract, and metabolism.

The bigger the secret or the riskier we perceive it to be, the more intense conflict within our brain, which will affect our emotional and physical well-being.

It’s no secret weighing out the pros and cons of a confession will better equip us to deal with our sensitive information or someone else’s.

Sources: Camp NP, Masicampo EJ, Slepian ML. Exploring the secrecy burden: Secrets, preoccupation, and perceptual judgments. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 2015.

Ambady N, Masicampo EJ, Slepian M. Relieving the burdens of secrecy: Revealing secrets influences judgments of hill slant and distance. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2014.