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Public Confessions of Private Affairs

Tune in to the trend of Internet- and TV-based confessions to find out why it’s happening and whether it’s helpful.

A Closer Look at the Confessors continued...

"People still want to be socially accepted, even with their warts, so they're willing to spill their personal beans," says psychotherapist Gilda Carle, PhD, an educator and relationship expert whose advice has penetrated TV and print media in recent years.

Some say the Internet confessor may be looking for an easy way out. "It's easier to do it [confess] in an anonymous world: you don't have to confront someone directly," Farley says.

Others, it seems, are just looking for some extra cash, potentially at a great cost. The Moment of Truth, a new reality TV show on Fox, offers up to $500,000 to contestants willing to bare their most private truths, typically in front of their closest friends or family members. The program proves that some people are willing to risk damage or complete ruin of friendships, and even marriage, for money. What's more, the success of the show tells us there are plenty of viewers eager to watch strangers' sad sagas unfold.

Confessions = Catharsis?

Do public confessions equal catharsis? That depends on whom you ask.

Though he can't speak for all confessors, Fox notes that he's gotten more than a handful of emails from people who have confessed to suicidal feelings on his web site and, afterward, report a new interest in living.

Others remain unconvinced of the benefits of public or anonymous confessions. "I would say it's a weak substitute, and it may delay the real issue at hand," Farley tells WebMD.

Still others are less skeptical. "We know that confession in and of itself can have beneficial effects," says Jeffrey Janata, PhD, a physician at University Hospitals and associate professor of psychiatry and director of the behavioral medicine program at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. "The actual degree of heartfelt expression is key."

Simply writing our deepest emotions may make for a healing experience. James Pennebaker, PhD, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University, has long studied the healing effects of unloading on paper an emotional upheaval. He's conducted several studies on the topic; the highlights have found their way into academic journals and, more recently, into his book Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval.

The upshot of Pennebaker's work is this: Writing about painful experiences can improve health by enhancing immune response, reducing recovery times, and promoting overall well-being. In a landmark study led by Pennebaker, participants who wrote about personal and painful topics actually experienced an increase in the levels of white blood cells (key to immune function) circulating in their bodies. Conversely, the control group who suppressed their emotions had a significant drop in immune-fighting cells.

The Role of the Audience

Are those on the receiving end of confessions simply modern-day voyeurs, or is there something more to tuning in to public confessions?

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