Are you #$%&^*# kidding me? No. A 2009 study published in a British psychology journal found individuals who swore had a higher threshold for enduring pain than individuals who used neutral words. “Swearing is not necessarily a negative thing,” says one researcher. “It can be a linguistic tool when dealing with frustrating events.”
Cursing hath charms to soothe the savage breast
Richard Stephens, Psy.D. and senior lecturer at Keele University, headed up the study. In an article for the Independent, Stephens writes, “There are many hidden benefits to swearing, which can be used to express emotion, as a tool for persuasion, as a means of coping with pain, as a way of identifying dementia and, believe it or not, to be polite.”
Stephens maintains swearing is as integral to our ability to communicate as are non-swear words. He mentions how gratifying it is to use the F-word in front of a rapt audience. He says it adds poignancy and gravitas less offensive words lack. Swearing maintains our physical and mental homeostasis because in civilized society, humans are extremely limited in how they can vent anger and frustration.
Profane and profound: history is rife with famous swearers
Contrary to conventional wisdom that holds people who swear frequently are either dull-witted or lack sophistication, politicians, titans of industry, writers and intellectuals are not above swearing. To the contrary, some are sublime practitioners in the art of profanity. Despite his strict religious upbringing, the Nixon Tapes revealed President Nixon to be rivalled only by Lyndon Johnson for swearing in the Oval Office. Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” General George S. Patton’s speech to the 3rd Army is still regarded as one of the greatest rallying calls in history. But it’s not for the kids.
Psychology of being cursed at and cursed to
Victims of repeated verbal abuse experience many of the same psychological problems as victims of physical abuse. One study found the majority of child abuse cases reported to police involved emotional abuse or neglect. According to the Austin Institute, emotional abuse is the fifth leading cause of divorce. Swearing as a weapon inflicts harm; swearing to someone, as a confidant or peer, can build fraternity.
I’m in @#$%#$@ control here!
Stephens and his researchers found swearing instills a sense of self-control. Sometimes swearing is the only thing a person can do in a situation. Swearing can also diffuse violence researchers concluded. People who are able to channel their anger into words are less likely to channel it into their fists. Swearing can also serve as an icebreaker in social situations. Depending on the crowd, the well-dropped swear word can be an ingratiating tool.
Brain function and hormone release
Psychology Today notes there are seven reasons for swearing. As touched on above, swearing can release pain and instill a sense of control. Swearing also releases endorphins. These are the chemicals that improve mood. Another reason for swearing includes improved self-expression. Despite how pervasive swearing is in society, individuals consider how they swear unique to themselves. And swearing can produce levity where non-swear words fall flat. A well-timed four-letter word is often just what is needed to add spice to a story.
The amygdala is the part of the brain most directly affected by swearing. It makes connections between words and physical reactions. The amygdala is part of the limbic system. Panic attacks or aggression resulting from swearing are the result of the amygdala being triggered. These reactions recall traumatic events characterized by swearing. A person raised in an environment where swear words were part of the everyday vernacular often finds comfort in them. Unlike the traumatized individual, this person’s amygdala has created a positive connection between swearing and emotion.
Physicians routinely advise patients to exercise to reduce stress. Stephens says not every patient is in the position to go for a run. During birth, women are instructed to breathe through their contractions to reduce the pain. Stephens recalls his wife breathed a string of expletives when delivering their child – not an isolated occurrence in delivery rooms. He notes following publication of his initial research on swearing, several online dictionaries have included a new word: lalochezia. It means the use of vulgar language to relieve pain or stress.
Loosening the screws at the back of the tongue leads to illumination
In the therapy arena, where breakthroughs hinge upon honesty, swearing can be the ideal conveyance for truth. Ryan Howes, Ph.D., writes in a blog for Psychology Today, “…it’s not really the swearing I’m looking for, it’s the lack of inhibition or censoring. Therapy works best when we’re allowed to look at what you really think and feel, as raw and perhaps impolite as that might be.”
Howes refers to British psychologist Donald Winnicot’s theory of the true self and compliant or false self. The true self is unadulterated, pure, even raw and impulsive. The compliant self is what people present to the world. This self is protective and urbane. It is the vigilant self; a façade made necessary to exist in a complex world. Howes says, “If you bring your false self, the mask that appears to have it all together, into therapy, I’m pretty sure we won’t get too far. If you take the risk to move past the censors and let the real you be seen, we can do some work. And you know what? That true self uses adult language sometimes.”
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Written by Darren Fraser, Sovereign Health Group writer