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Is Swearing Good For You?

Is Swearing Good For You?

The Rumor: Swearing isn’t all bad…

Ladies shouldn’t swear. At least, that’s what my friends told me when they performed an intervention on me for dropping the F-bomb too often during swimming practice. My mom, sisters, employers and random baristas have told me to watch my language. I even gave up cursing for Lent one year. I spent the longest 40 days of my life uttering sentences like, “Golly gee, I missed that exit! Son of a gun!” The result? My repressed emotions emerged in the form of even more unattractive behavior, and a new intervention was scheduled.

Now I have science on my side. F**k yeah!

The Verdict: Swearing has health benefits!

Researchers at the School of Psychology at the University of Keele in the UK report that using foul language can reduce pain.

In the original study (the findings of which were reexamined and resubstantiated in a later, related study), Richard Stephens, Ph.D., and a team of researchers asked 71 college students to submerge their hands in freezing water for as long as they could stand it. One group was instructed to repeat a swear word while doing so; the other chanted a neutral word, such as “Chilly!” On average, the swearers lasted 40 seconds longer in the cold water than the non-swearers did. (Now imagine this same group in traffic. I’m betting that the number of accidents would decrease if more expletives were uttered.)

The only bad news? The pain-numbing effect was four times more likely to occur with volunteers who didn’t normally swear. That’s because swearing, like pain-relieving drugs, activates the brain’s endogenous opioids. But over time, your body builds a tolerance to expletives’ soothing effects, so you have to swear more and more to get the same benefits.

Stephens and his team theorize that swearing relieves pain because it produces an emotional “fight or flight” response. While most language activates the cerebral cortex and structures in the left hemisphere of the brain, four-letter words trigger the more primitive structures in the right side of the brain, which is more closely linked to emotions. But swearing creates a physical reaction, too. According to Stephens’ study, it causes an acceleration of heart rate and an increase in aggression.

In a study published in the journal Emotion, researchers asked 175 people to participate in role-playing exercises that involved either some level of confrontation (such as a teacher accusing a student of cheating) or collaboration (a CEO presenting a company overview to his partners). Researchers found that when preparing for a moment of confrontation, the participants who allowed themselves to feel angry — “That son of a B deserves to get his butt kicked out of here!” — were better off psychologically and showed greater well-being in general. Those who suppressed the anger and tried to feel happy before the confrontation — “Guy probably forgot to study, poor fella” — showed lower levels of well-being and psychological health.

There’s a definite advantage in swearing — it helps us cope with both pain and pressure. So next time someone gives you the stink eye for letting an expletive slip, you can say nothing and know you’re better prepared for life’s stresses, or you can tell them to, well, you know.

Frances Masters

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist with over 30,000 client hours of experience. Follow her @fusioncoachuk, or visit The Integrated Coaching Academy for details about up coming training.