What Goes Around Comes Around: The Power of Verbal First Aid
Posted Feb 03 2010 1:31pm
Once words leave our lips, they move out through the universe to impact others in ways mystics may understand better than medics. Once expressed, we are not able to take them back and we are not able to change their trajectory. Words said in anger, in hatred, in carelessness catapult themselves out into the world, stampeding through relationships, impacting others—hearts, minds, and bodies—in ways we are just beginning to understand.
Speaking is an act of creation. It reaches out to affect the world. Sound has a power the ancients knew and used: The walls came tumbling down around because of trumpets. In modern medicine, experiments done in the field of music therapy show that people heal more readily when they are exposed to certain kinds of music.
Words can heal and words can harm. Who has not felt the sting of an unexpected rebuke? The flush and flurry of a frightened heart on being told our test results came back and we need to see the doctor? The softening of our neck muscles upon hearing the words, "The worst is over." Words and ideas have almost instantaneous and physical impacts on our bodies by the images they create. Those images create, in turn, a cascade of chemistry that changes our blood pressure, alters our heart and respiration rate, stops or starts bleeding, increases or decrease bowel motility and so on through the body.
One little boy in the hospital overheard the doctor speaking to his parents in the corridor outside his room. His parents rushed into his room when they heard him cry out loudly. He was upset because the doctor had told his parents that he had "gas," which he believed literally. He was afraid he was going to blow up.
Compare these two scenarios:
A resident finishes examining a patient, touches the patient's hand and says, "You're going to be fine."
A resident finishes examining a patient, steps outside and meets another doctor in the hall. The other doctor asks, "How's he doing?" The resident says, "He's going to be fine."
What we hear others say about us to one another seems to carry more weight for most of us, perhaps because we imagine that whatever is said to us may be less complete or accurate, particularly if the other person wants to "spare our feelings," or "protect us." How many people would you tell the whole truth to if you were asked, "How do you like my new hairdo?"
Nowhere is the power of the spoken word more evident, more dramatic than in emergency medicine. One of the most dramatic and simple demonstrations of it was when a little girl I know had fallen and cut herself badly. As we put pressure on the wound, I got her attention by telling her a story about another little girl that had cut her arm in just the same way. I spoke to her in a calm, firm, confident voice, suggesting to her that as she held the bandage on the cut, her body could stop the bleeding, since it already knows how to do that and has done it hundreds of times before. The bleeding stopped.
What we say even has impact on those who are unconscious or sedated. Dabney Ewin, a psychiatrist and surgeon at Tulane University, regularly addresses his patients as they are in surgery, asking them specifically to raise their blood pressure or blood oxygen levels as indicated. He knows, as you do now, that the human being is far more complicated than we can imagine and that words reach places scalpels and pills cannot.