SFerdon/Shutterstock
Source: SFerdon/Shutterstock

Recent research on the ability of swearing to increase pain tolerance, strength, and overall physical performance suggests that Mark Twain was onto something when he famously said, “Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”

Richard Stephens from Keele University in the UK presented his latest paper “Effect of Swearing on Strength and Power Performance” at the 2017 Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society (May 3-5) as part of the symposium, "Assessing the efficacy and feasibility of emotional expressiveness interventions."

For this study, Stephens and his team conducted two experiments. In the first, participants completed a test of anaerobic power—which consisted of a short, intense interval on a stationary exercise bike—after both swearing and not swearing. In the second, participants completed an isometric handgrip test, again after both swearing and not swearing. The results showed that study participants produced more bicycle power wattage and a stronger handgrip if they had sworn.

In a statement to BPS, Stephens said, “We know from our earlier research that swearing makes people more able to tolerate pain. A possible reason for this is that it stimulates the body's sympathetic nervous system—that's the system that makes your heart pound when you are in danger. But we have yet to understand the power of swearing fully. Swearing seems to be a form of emotional language. Perhaps it's the emotional effect of the words that leads to the distraction, but this is just speculation at the moment.”

The latest research by Stephens et al. is a follow-up study to previous research in which he and his Keele University colleagues found that swearing can have a “pain-lessening effect.” This 2009 study, "Swearing as a Response to Pain" was published in NeuroReport and found that swearing promoted a higher pain tolerance and decreased perceived pain when compared with not swearing. 

In this analgesic pain study, participants could hold their hands in a bucket of ice water for twice as long if they swore compared to if they used "neutral" words someone would use to describe household items. Based on these findings, Stephens actually recommends letting out a cathartic four-letter expletive when you hurt yourself as a way to cope with unexpected jolts of pain. 

We all know from life experience that swearing is a verbal outlet that offers a visceral relief, that transcends the ability of polite, everyday language to evoke strong emotions. Other research by Stephens provides empirical evidence that there is a correlation between swearing and emotional arousal.

Although swearing is generally considered an uncouth way to express your emotions or inner feelings, a Jan. 2017 study found that people who swear are paradoxically viewed as being more honest and authentic by onlookers. This international study, "Frankly, We Do Give a Damn: The Relationship Between Profanity and Honesty," was co-authored by Michal Kosinski of Stanford University and David Stillwell of the University of Cambridge, along with researchers in Hong Kong and the Netherlands. Their Social Psychological and Personality Science paper reported that across diverse national cultures, people who used profanity were unexpectedly viewed as less likely to be associated with lying and deception.

In an article published in the academic newsletter The Conversation, Stephens sums up the main takeaways of the latest research on swearing:

"When I am giving talks on the psychology of swearing I usually end with transcripts of the final utterances of fatal air-crash pilots, captured on the black box flight recorder because, unsurprisingly, many of these feature swearing. I use it to emphasize an important point: that swearing must be important given its prominence in matters of life and death.

We appear to have established a two-way relation between swearing and emotion. Not only can swearing provoke an emotional response [as shown in the swearing and pain research] but raised emotional arousal has been shown to facilitate swearing, or at least one aspect of it, swearing fluency. These psychology studies demonstrate that there is more to swearing than routine offense-causing or a lack of linguistic hygiene. Language is a sophisticated toolkit and swearing is a useful component.”

In an April 2017 NPR interview, “From 'F-Bomb' To 'Photobomb,' How The Dictionary Keeps Up With English,” Terry Gross spoke with Merriam-Webster associate editor and lexicographer Kory Stamper about her new book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

During this Fresh Air interview, Stamper describes the etymological roots of the term “F-bomb” which led to the inclusion of this phrase in the dictionary. Stamper says that "F-bomb" was first used when New York Mets’ baseball catcher Gary Carter (who was nicknamed "Kid" for his youthful and somewhat innocent exuberance but wasn’t known for profanity) accidentally blurted out the word "f*ck" publicly. Using this curse word made enough news that sports reporters needed a way to say what expletive Carter had used without being censored. Steve Marcus of Newsday came up with the terminology that Carter had "dropped the F-bomb." Of course, this euphemistic slang has since become common parlance.

As an example of using the F-bomb to improve performance: My father was a brain surgeon who rarely swore, but once confessed to me that he had a ritual of saying “Don’t f*ck up.” to himself in the third person before every neurosurgical procedure or anytime things got really stressful during an operation. Intellectually, my dad couldn’t explain why dropping the F-bomb helped to create a mindset of optimum performance during neurosurgery. But, he had learned from firsthand experience that this simple three-word phrase, more than any other, helped him acknowledge the gravity of a situation in the O.R. while simultaneously maintaining grace under pressure and staying in "the zone." 

As an athlete, I adopted the same profanity-laced maxim that my father used as a neurosurgeon whenever the stakes were high at the starting line of a competition or if I began losing my mojo during a long race. For me, "Don't f*ck up" became a touchstone phrase that seemed to create an optimal state of emotional arousal as an ultra-endurance athlete. From decades of sports competition, I can corroborate that dropping the F-bomb or uttering swear words under my breath definitely increased my physical performance, stamina, and pain tolerance when the going was tough.

Anecdotally, I can also corroborate that Stephens is onto something with his association between swearing and the sympathetic nervous system. As part of a repertoire that used mindfulness techniques and diaphragmatic breathing to create a neurobiological sense of calm by consciously activating my parasympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve—saying a quick expletive phrase under my breath could instantly give me a jolt of cortisol and adrenaline that kickstarted the "fight-or-flight" response of my sympathetic nervous system. Swearing was an easy way to rev the gas within my autonomic nervous system to find a perfect sweet spot within the "yin-yang" tug of war between over-arousal and boredom.

Of course, prescribing the use of swear words to improve performance goes against mainstream sanitized and sugarcoated advice that is usually associated with positive self-talk. That being said, anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that constantly coddling yourself in a namby-pamby way like Stuart Smalley from the “Self Affirmations" SNL skits could ultimately backfire. The selective use of swear words appears to fortify the moxie, gusto, and grit needed to achieve peak performance during taxing challenges that push against your limits both on and off the court.

There is an important caveat. In 2011, Stephens found that overusing curse words minimized their pain-killing effectiveness. Test subjects who indicated that they swore regularly each day did not demonstrate nearly as much improvement in their pain tolerance scores when they swore. This study by Richard Stephens and Claudia Umland, "Swearing as a Response to Pain—Effect of Daily Swearing Frequency" was published in The Journal of Pain.

As a coach, I recommend using swear words sparingly as part of an inner dialogue that is uttered in a whispered tone that wouldn't be audible to competitors or spectators on the sidelines. Stephens also found that study participants did best when they said swear words of their choice in a “steady and clear” voice without shouting them. This appeared to prevent study participants from getting too emotional or over aroused. Obviously, in the real world, having a gymnasium or playing field of athletes all swearing at themselves or others in a full-throated manner would be rude, offensive, and unsportsmanlike.

Novelist James Rozoff once said, “Vulgarity is like a fine wine: it should only be uncorked on a special occasion.” I agree. Overusing swear words is boorish and crass. Please do not misconstrue the latest findings on the performance enhancing benefits of swearing out loud as an excuse to become a foul-mouthed, obscenity-spouting vulgarian. 

References

Stephens, Richard; Atkins, John; Kingston, Andrew (5 August 2009). "Swearing as a response to pain". NeuroReport. 20 (12): 1056–1060. doi:10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1. 

Richard Stephens, Amy Zile. Does Emotional Arousal Influence Swearing Fluency? Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s10936-016-9473-8

Richard Stephens, Claudia Umland. Swearing as a Response to Pain—Effect of Daily Swearing Frequency. The Journal of Pain, Volume 12, Issue 12, 1274 - 1281. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2011.09.004

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