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Swearing reduces pain – but not if you do it every day
Our research suggests that swearing is a useful part of language that can help us express strong emotions or react to high pressure situations."
Research published today by Keele University shows that while swearing (or cursing if you prefer) can produce effective short-term pain relief, the effect is much greater for people who do not swear regularly in day-to-day life.
The research, conducted by Richard Stephens and Claudia Umland from Keele’s School of Psychology and published in the prestigious US medical periodical The Journal of Pain, sheds new light on swearing as a response to pain. The new research replicated Dr Stephens’ 2009 findings showing that people can withstand an ice-cold water challenge for longer by repeatedly swearing compared with reciting a neutral word.
However, the new research additionally took into account how often people swear in everyday situations. It was found that people swearing just a few times a day doubled the amount of time they could withstand the ice water challenge in the swearing condition of the experiment. On the other hand, people who admitted to the highest levels of everyday swearing (the maximum was 60 swear words per day), did not show any benefit in withstanding the ice water in the swearing condition of the experiment compared with the neutral word.
It is believed that swearing helps most people better tolerate pain by provoking an emotional response in the speaker – possibly aggression or anger – leading to “stress-induced analgesia”. This natural form of pain relief is part of the body’s “fight or flight” response, along with the well-known surge in adrenalin. However, it seems that people who curse more often get used to profanity (a psychologist would say they become “habituated” to swearing) such that they do not get the same level of emotional response and, consequently, they do not get the same pain relieving effect.
Dr Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in Psychology at Keele University, said: “Swearing is a very emotive form of language and our findings suggest that over-use of swear words can water down their emotional effect. Used in moderation, swearing can be an effective and readily available short-term pain reliever if, for example, you are in a situation where there is no access to medical care or painkillers. However, if you’re used to swearing all the time, our research suggests you won’t get the same effect.
“Normal language is associated with the cortex (the outer layer) of the left side of the brain, but swearing seems to activate deeper parts of the brain more associated with emotions. We are just scratching the surface of how swearing can influence our emotions and how it can have impact in different situations. In the context of pain swearing appears to serve as a simple form of emotional self-management. Whether swearing has beneficial effects in other contexts is something we would like to explore in the future.”
While the study gives strong evidence for the effect swearing has on pain tolerance, it is not clear how the effect works within the body. Dr Stephens continues: “Our research suggests that swearing is a useful part of language that can help us express strong emotions or react to high pressure situations. However, it would be wise only to swear in moderation as over-use of swearing seems to water down this effect”
Keele has been at the forefront in developing a student centred educational environment and is rated in the top 10 in England in both the recent National Student Survey (NSS) and in the Employment statistics.