Expletives for Pain. What fun.

“Swearing has been shown to relieve physical pain when it comes to banging your toe or slamming a finger in a door. Now, a new psychology study shows we shouldn’t be coy about cursing when suffering from an aching heart or hurt feelings.”*

Expletives for pain. Well, maybe this is why they let us say whatever we want when we’re in labor. It’s been over 30 years and I can still see the ‘it’s okay honey’ look on the faces of the nurses who just didn’t seem to get that, unusual as it would be, this particular baby was definitely going to come out of the wrong part of a woman’s body. Based on how it felt, I was sure of it, but they didn’t get it, which affected my language. I would have said that I invented a whole new natural childbirth language but something tells me that others before me had spoken the very same words. They’d heard it before, were completely unfazed by it, and knew before the science even told them so that foul language can help with pain. But how?

researchers speculate that brain circuitry linked to emotion is involved. Earlier studies have shown that unlike normal language, which relies on the outer few millimeters in the left hemisphere of the brain, expletives hinge on evolutionarily ancient structures buried deep inside the right half. One such structure is the amygdala, an almond-shaped group of neurons that can trigger a fight-or-flight response in which our heart rate climbs and we become less sensitive to pain.”

So the cursing may trigger a physiological response that lessens our pain, but not just our physical pain. A previous blog post, “Got REJECTION. Take TYLENOL,” addressed the neural circuitry connection between physical and emotional pain, such that what affects the one could similarly affect the other. This is known as “Pain Overlap Theory”* Hence, Tylenol for social/emotional pain; for example, rejection. In this post, we are not talking about something we take by mouth, Tylenol; but rather something that comes out of the mouth, profanity, as a treatment for pain.

I know, your mother told you not to. So did mine, but now it seems there really is a time and a place for just about everything, including cursing for pain. Now we learn that, while cursing is likely not the treatment of choice for deep grief, and that while unbridled cursing like road rage can cause serious harm – cursing can be good for when you stub your toe, break your arm, have a baby, wreck your car, or when you find out you got left out of the party or meeting that you wanted to attend. All of that stuff hurts, and studies now suggest that foul language can help.

Not all the time though. Has to be used sparingly or, like anything else, too much of a good thing. We humans habituate, we get used to things, which then lose their impact. So just for special occasions, okay. Pick and choose – what, where, when and with whom to curse – and then just let it rip. Have to say I wonder if this applies to taboos of verbal meanness that may not even include profanity per se. This would be a separate study but seems to me there could be a similar effect (heart rate up, pain down) when we dare to speak the unspeakable to the jerk who hurt our feelings, dirty words or not. I’m experimenting with this myself and, here again, all in good measure, so one does not habituate into a mean person to the detriment of all, including oneself. Reminds me of this Ghandi quote:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”

Also reminds me of Mark Manson’s, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, in which the author does use the ‘F’ word a lot, at the same time he also tells us we have to pick and choose carefully what to even give an ‘F’ about. But we also have to be careful not to overthink the thing because, for the swearing to work its pain reduction magic, seems it has to come from the flight or fight (not the higher order thinking) part of the brain. So…not too much, not too little, but just right. You’ll figure it out. Practice, practice, practice…and see what happens.

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Email:  Madelaine Weiss

Phone:   202-617-0821

* “Swearing relieves both physical and social pain, study finds (2017, June 1) Massey University https://medicalxpress.com/news/2017-06-relieves-physical-social-pain.html More information: Michael C. Philipp et al. “Hurt feelings and four letter words: Swearing alleviates the pain of social distress,” European Journal of Social Psychology (2017). DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2264

** Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.

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