WTF! Swearing Can Enhance Your Pain Tolerance!

Wash your mouth out with soap? New research shows an upside to profanity

Posted Apr 22, 2018

Mariel Bello, used with permission
Source: Mariel Bello, used with permission

This guest post was contributed by Mariel Bello, a graduate student in the USC Psychology Department's Clinical Science program.

If you’re like me, you were taught as a child to never swear, or else you’d get soap in your mouth. Which I did, several times in fact throughout childhood (true story). However, despite these very unpleasant events which left a very strong taste in my mouth, the act of getting my tongue scrubbed vigorously with soap by my mother has never stopped me from engaging in healthy amount of swearing as an adult.

Oldies.com, labeled for reuse
Source: Oldies.com, labeled for reuse

I find myself spewing colorful four-letter words in almost every occasion—when waking up and hitting the snooze button, when driving through Los Angeles traffic, when hearing about good news, when stubbing my toe late at night while going to the bathroom, when finding out that Microsoft Word crashed and I have to rewrite this blog post again, and when realizing how many hours I have left to sleep before waking up in the morning. Timothy Jay, a psychologist who studies the usage of profanity at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, explains that swearing is “like the horn in our car”, we “can do a lot of things with it” such as “vent or express anger, joy, surprise, happiness,” and a whole range of other emotions and behaviors. Thus, contrary to what popular opinion believes about swearing, recent research suggests that swearing may actually be quite good for you and may have several positive benefits, particularly in response to pain.

In 2009, Richard Stephens, a behavioral psychologist, led a novel experimental study examining the effects of swearing on pain tolerance in Keele University in England. He describes a keen interest in researching the function of swearing since “swearing is such a common response to pain that there has to be an underlying reason as to why we do it”. In his original study, Stephens and colleagues asked 67 undergraduate student volunteers to list five words that they’d likely use “after hitting their thumb with a hammer”, with the first word listed being their go-to swear word for the experiment. In a comparison condition, they were also asked to list five boring (neutral) words to “describe a table”. Participants then underwent a commonly used pain tolerance test, where they were instructed to immerse their unclenched hand in a bucket of icy 41-degree water and keep it there for as long as they could. Imagine putting your hand in a bowl filled with tons of ice and freezing water? Sounds excruciating, right?

Pixabay, Creative Commons license
Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons license

Participants were instructed to repeatedly curse until they no longer could withstand the pain and removed their hand from the icy water (this procedure was also repeated for their chosen neutral word as well). Researchers recorded their heart rate before and after the task, their perception of pain, and pain tolerance (duration of time spent submerging their hand in icy water). Contrary to what Stephens and colleagues expected, participants, on average, were better able to tolerate the pain—and they left their hands in the bucket of icy water for about 40 seconds longer—if they repeatedly swore rather than repeating a non-swear word! Participants also experienced increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain when swearing compared to when not swearing; this effect was particularly stronger among women (vs. men). Results of this study have been replicated numerous times and have also been shown to generalize to other cultural groups such as Japanese populations.

Wikimedia Commons, labeled for reuse
Source: Wikimedia Commons, labeled for reuse

So, you’re probably thinking, “What the fu-- does swearing have to do with our ability to tolerate pain?! Explain this, Mariel”. The real answer is that it’s still unclear. Researchers such as Steven Pinker of Harvard University who studies the origins of language and swearing, believes that swearing may be adaptive and “may tap into ‘deep and ancient parts of the emotional brain’ like the amygdala—a small, almond-shaped structure of neurons that is responsible for processing emotions. Prior studies suggest that reduced sensitivity to pain occurs if the negative emotion we experience in the context of a painful stimulus also triggers fear, which may activate the amygdala, leading to a fight-or-flight response where we feel a rush of adrenaline that increases our heart rate and pain tolerance. Thus, this explanation may be plausible considering that the prior study above found that participants’ heart rates increased when they swore, which suggests that the amygdala may have been activated.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Okay, I get it, Mariel. Swearing is good for you. Thanks for giving me an excuse to swear whenever and wherever I want! You said it was backed by science!”. Now, before you go off into the world and start shouting numerous expletives to your heart’s content, there is a significant caveat to keep in mind. In 2011, Stephens published a follow-up study in The Journal of Pain where he found that overusing swear words may minimize their overall pain-killing effectiveness. He found that participants who reported swearing regularly every day did not exhibit improvements in their pain tolerance, suggesting that frequent swearers may become desensitized to their own swearing and thus, may no longer be particularly aroused by it. Thus, Stephens notes that this effect may be only apparent for those who swear just a few times a day and that overusing of swearing in everyday situations may lessen its effectiveness as a short-term intervention to reduce pain.

So, all in all, use swear words sparingly and know that it’s okay to swear here and there once in a while, especially when experiencing pain. However, don’t use the findings reviewed in this article as a reason to become rude and vulgar or to begin shouting endless obscenities whenever you want. As novelist James Rozoff once said, “Vulgarity is like a fine wine: it should only be uncorked on a special occasion”.

References

1. Montagu, A. (1967). The anatomy of swearing. University of Pennsylvania press.

2. Pinker, S. (2007). The stuff of thought: Language as a window into human nature. Penguin.

3. Rhudy, J. L., & Meagher, M. W. (2003). Negative affect: effects on an evaluative measure of human pain. Pain, 104(3), 617-626.

4. Rhudy, J. L., & Meagher, M. W. (2000). Fear and anxiety: divergent effects on human pain thresholds. Pain, 84(1), 65-75.

5. Robertson, O., Robinson, S. J., & Stephens, R. (2017). Swearing as a response to pain: A cross-cultural comparison of British and Japanese participants. Scandinavian journal of pain, 17, 267-272.

6. Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain. Neuroreport, 20(12), 1056-1060.

7. Stephens, R., & Umland, C. (2011). Swearing as a response to pain—Effect of daily swearing frequency. The Journal of Pain, 12(12), 1274-1281.