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In Pain? Swear Your Way Out, New Study Advises

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“%#&6^*!!?$@!!!”

Ahhhhhhhhh! That feels better! At least that’s what a new British study promises.

If you’re trying to ease the pain of an injury, says this first-of-a-kind research, start cussin’.

Dr. Richard Stephens, a psychologist at Keele University in Staffordshire, England, accidentally smashed his little finger “really, really hard” with a hammer while building a shed in his garden awhile back. “While it was throbbing,” he recalls, “I swore a bit.” His wife later cut loose a string of expletives during the pain of childbirth—and those 2 incidents got him wondering about the psychology and physiology of cursing.

With 2 colleagues, he arranged a simple experiment. Drawing on some 5 dozen undergraduate volunteers, the team had subjects submerge their hands in a bucket of ice-cold water and see how long they could endure the pain while continuously repeating a swear word of their choice. The test was then repeated, but this time the students could only utter a neutral control word, like “brown” or “square.”

Well, [bleep] me! Cursing helped, especially with female subjects!

“Swearing increased pain tolerance…and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing,” Stephens reported. The swearers were able to keep their hands submerged an average of 160 seconds, compared to only 100 seconds for the non-cursers. That’s “quite a big difference,” Stephens says.

Why? “Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon,” Stephens says. Unlike most language production, which occurs in the outer few millimeters of the left hemisphere of the brain, swearing seems to arise from the primitive emotional centers buried deep in the right-side brain. Uttering an expletive in response to physical pain may be instinctive, akin to a dog yelping when its tail is stepped on.

“In swearing,” Stephens told a reporter for Time, “people have an emotional response, and it’s the emotional response that actually triggers the reduction of pain.” He also noted that the swearers in his experiment experienced consistently accelerated heart rates during their diatribes, suggesting that cussing may increase aggression, “which downplays weakness in order to appear stronger.”

A couple of caveats:

  • If you casually swear a lot in your daily life, you may be blunting cuss words as an Rx for pain. Speculating on why foul-mouthed women on average did better in suppressing pain during Stephens’ experiment, Dr. Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, says he suspects that “swearing retains more of an emotional punch [for women] because it has not been overused. That’s one reason I think people should not overuse profanity in their speech and writing…because it blunts [swear words] of their power when you do need them.”
  • A tendency to “pain catastrophise” also tended to reduce the analgesic effect of obscene words, Stephens found. Catastrophise means to “blow things all out of proportion,” explains Dr. Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Research Center, which as not involved in the experiments. “When you are mentally exaggerating a situation, you tend to focus more on the trauma and pain. If you’re focused on swearing, you’re shifting your attention in another direction, releasing psychological and physiological tension, and suppressing your perception of pain.”

In future research, Stephens says, he hopes to explore more deeply “the relationship between induced aggression and reduction of pain.” Meanwhile, a full report on his current study can be accessed for a fee at the website for the journal NeuroReport: http://journals.lww.com/neuroreport/pages/default.aspx. See the Aug. 5 issue.

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