Can swearing actually help you? Scientists now believe that there is therapeutic value in the act of swearing, that it can help physical pain.
The traditional logic used to dictate that swearing actually seemed to worsen pain, through an act known as “catastrophizing.” When we catastrophize, we often leap to the conclusion that the pain we are experiencing is the worst thing ever. It ignites a negative feedback loop where we begin to tell ourselves “I just can't do this!” Swearing was thought to reinforce that negative self-feedback loop.
This possible paradox troubled psychologist and author Dr. Richards Stevens. In his book, Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, Dr. Stevens asks “why swearing, a supposedly maladaptive response to pain, is such a common pain response.” Given how common swearing is in situations that influence negative stimuli, Dr. Stevens decided to figure out if swearing makes pain feel worse or better.
Dr. Stevens concocted an experiment. He asked 67 undergraduate students to place one of their hands into a bucket of ice water. Not once, but twice. The students were allowed to swear while dunking their hand on one round of the experiment, while on the other, they were not. Dr. Stevens had theorized that, based on popular thought that swearing worsens pain, the students who swore would remove their hand from the icy water more quickly.
The results, of course, did not support that premise. The individuals who were able to keep their hand submerged for a longer duration of time were able to do so while swearing. The result seemed to indicate that swearing was an effective pain management technique in this experiment.
“Pain used to be thought of as a purely biological phenomenon, but actually pain is very much psychological. The same level of injury will hurt more or less in different circumstances,” writes Stephens.
Swearing has numerous psychological benefits, not only in the response to pain, but in experiences with a variety of environmental circumstances.
According to Ashley Finn of Elite Daily, swearing has a plethora of benefits. Not only can swearing scientifically lessen the experience of pain, but it also can make a person feel stronger and more resilient. As an innately expressive tool, swearing can also be an effective coping mechanism. A lot of this is due, in part, to the direct effect that swearing has on the brain.
“As well as making the ice water feel less painful, we also showed that swearing causes effects on various parts of the body,” says Dr. Stephens. “It does increase heart rate: It seems to cause the fight-or-flight response. So if we think that swearing can help with pain because it causes emotional arousal, then what about doing something that just causes emotional arousal?”
Based on this idea. Dr. Stephens helped one of his students create an experiment designed to test the theory that an increase in aggression (an emotional arousal) would lead to higher pain tolerance. For this experiment, Claire Allsop repeated the ice water tests of her mentor. Before doing so, however, Allsop surveyed her participants based on how often they played more aggressive types of video games. All of her participants either played a first-person shooter style game or a more benign golf game. The results, as predicted, were similar to the experiments conducted by her mentor.
“We basically showed the same pattern of effect as we did for swearing: They could tolerate [the ice water] longer, and said they perceived it as less painful, and they also showed a rise in heart rate,” said Allsop. The individuals who played first person shooter games, were able to leave their hand submerged in the icy water for longer periods.
A third experiment, designed by Kristin Neil, was created to analyze how aggressive someone is and how much pain they can withstand. Among the many features of the test, participants were allowed to punish other players by sending them an electric shock. According to a report from Wired, “They were told to imagine themselves like gunslingers in a western—they had to be faster than their (unseen) opponent at pressing the button after a cue in order to win the game. The intensity of the shock could be decided by the volunteer. In order to give the volunteers some idea of just how much punishment they would be meting out, Neil gave them all a series of shocks before the game began, increasing the level until the volunteers asked her to stop.”
“The results are indisputable: The more pain a volunteer was able to take before the trial, the more likely they were to shock sooner, more often, at higher voltage and even to lean on the button for longer than their less pain-tolerant fellows.” In essence, the more aggressive the volunteer, the higher their tolerance to both inflict and endure pain.
What does this all mean? At the very least, these experiments demonstrate the idea that humans can easily manipulate their emotions as a mechanism for managing pain. The studies show that swearing, as one form of emotional regulation, can be extremely effective, and appropriate, in the arena of pain management. Swearing can help people feel more resilient.