For Gays and Lesbians, Coming Out of the Closet Could Mean a Longer Life

 

Guarding a secret is a stressful experience that can result in a number of health problems. New research reveals that this includes keeping your sexual orientation under wraps.

Research, New and Old

A recent study from the University of Montreal, published in Psychosomatic Medicine, indicates that homosexual men are in better mental health than their heterosexual counterparts. Furthermore, the study also showed a higher stress level among closeted men and women than among their out peers.

The finding that closeted individuals experience greater levels of stress, depression and anxiety is not surprising, considering that other research has shown that keeping secrets elevates stress. When you have a secret, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, your brain is in constant tension with itself over the decision to tell the truth or protect confidential knowledge. The bigger the secret, the greater the effects. For many people, acknowledging sexual orientation can fall into the camp of a major secret, thus leading to high levels of stress, just as the new study from the University of Montreal found.

A few caveats to the University of Montreal study: The sample group included 87 individuals, all of whom lived in the Montreal area, which is generally a liberal region with high levels of acceptance for homosexuals. The study’s authors acknowledged that similar studies in other geographic areas might provide further insight. In the U.S., for example, prior research has shown that gays and lesbians deal with certain health challenges to a greater degree than heterosexuals. Additionally, other studies have found that the period right after coming out can be particularly stressful, to the point of increased suicide risk.

Effects of Chronic Stress

Even if the the coming-out period can be particularly stressful for a time, long-term stress from harboring secrets can wreak havoc on your overall health. The body is designed to respond quickly and efficiently to short-term stressors by releasing hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Ideally, the system returns to normal when the imminent threat has passed. However, when stress is a continual fact of life, this response system is always activated, and the body is regularly over-exposed to stress hormones. Side effects of un-managed stress levels can include:

  • Issues with weight control.

  • Anxiety and depression.

  • Cardiac and digestive problems.

  • Memory troubles.

  • Sleep disturbances.

Resources

Help is available for those at risk of poor health due to the chronic stress of keeping secrets about sexual orientation. WebPsychology’s Coping with Stress and Stress Management Test can provide a clearer picture of the stress in your life and how you are handling it. And for those grappling with questions about sexual orientation, the support of organizations like The Marin Foundation, The Trevor Project and LGBT Foundation can help.