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Swearing relieves pain, new neurological study shows

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:03pm
So there is some merit in swearing. I remember as 9-year-olds, my best friend Tina and I had a hiding place in the woods where we went to "practice" the forbidden swear words we were learning at school. Looks like they could come in handy after all!

A new study published in the August 5 NeuroReport suggests that cursing may alleviate pain. Scientist Timothy Jay says "Swear words are unique. They're really the link between the language system and the emotional system."

The author of the new study, psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University, said the idea came to him after listening to his wife in labor. I can relate!! I was mortified when my husband told me the bleeps I yelled at the doctor during the final stages of childbirth.

Richard Stephens designed an experiment to test his suspicion that swearing might change pain perception. He had college students immerse one hand in very cold water for as long as they could stand it, up to 5 minutes. Some students were told to repeat particular swear words (f-word, s-word, etc.) during the hand immersion. Other students were told to repeat a neutral word.

Stephens found that those who repeated a swear word were able to keep their hand in the cold water longer; they also reported less pain. Cursing also increased the heart rate of the experimental subjects.

Scientists think that the increased pulse of the experimental swearers may have been the beginning of the fight-or-flight syndrome that often kicks in in response to pain or fear. (A full-blown fight-or-flight response includes increased respiration, increased heart rate, pupil dilation, increased blood flow to skeletal muscles - responses that prepare the body to flee or to fight.) It could be that an increased tolerance of pain, or the ability to ignore pain, could be adaptive components of a fight-or-flight response.

Maybe. My own opinion is that swearing relieves stress, in the same way that describing frustrations to a trusted friend can relieve stress. Venting anger in solitude or in an appropriate setting, in a socially acceptable manner....can alleviate stress, and I imagine, reduce pain. The link between stress and pain is well established, which is one reason childbirth classes help with pain management; many include relaxation techniques.

I think too, at least for women, swearing can create a feeling of personal power or defiance, and reduce feelings of victimization. I was powerless in the delivery room, in a way, because the baby was stuck, and I was almost delirious with pain and exhaustion. Somehow swearing made me feel less passive, and helped me endure the experience. Even though at the time I had no idea what I was saying.

And my practicing at swearing with my childhood friend - I think the very forbidden nature of it made us feel more powerful, more in control of our own lives - something I needed as the youngest of four children and the only girl.

Which brings me back to scientist Timothy Jay, who remarked, "When you try to describe swearing in moral terms - is it good or bad - it keeps you from getting at the deeper evolutionary links." I guess he means the fight-or-flight syndrome. But in my opinion, those deeper evolutionary links are our need to vent frustration, relieve stress, and exert our own personal power.

Key words:: cursing swearing childbirth pain stress venting

Sources:
Laura Sanders. '%&*#$!' makes you feel better: new study finds swearing like a sailor may alleviate pain. Science News. August 1, 2009.

Richard Stephens et al. Swearing as a response to pain. NeuroReport. August 5, 2009.
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