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Does Swearing Reduce Pain?

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No need to get a bar of soap after every round of expletives for a mouth-cleanse. Research suggests swearing might actually help reduce the amount of perceived pain during traumatic situations [1].


Illustration by Elaine Liu

JUST SWEAR BY IT — THE NEED-TO-KNOW

So what gives swearing this pain-reducing effect? It's possible swearing can be distracting enough to make people forget they were even afraid of being hurt [2]. Interestingly, this effect doesn't seem to come from yelling out any old thing. Another recent study found that the nervous system reacted more strongly to swear words than to euphemisms or neutral words [3].

Previously considered simply a coping mechanism, recent research suggests a possible connection between pain reduction and swearing [4]. When experiencing pain, researchers found that the people who were allowed to swear demonstrated an increase in both pain tolerance and heart rate and a decrease in perceived pain [4].

So F------ What? — Your Action Plan
 

Since swearing may play a role in pain reduction, the occasional outburst in response to pain or a particularly frustrating situation could be justified. But don’t put all those expletives in one basket! Over-use may actually desensitize the body to the powerful effects of those pretty little four-letter words, lessening their pain-killing effects [6]. So keep up the good work, and keep on yelling those f-bombs— but only when it's truly f'in necessary.

Works Cited +

  1. Swearing As a Response to Pain. Stephens, R., Atkins, J., Kingston, A. School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire, UK. NeuroReport 2009 August; 20 (12): 1056-1060.
  2. Swearing As a Response to Pain. Stephens, R., Atkins, J., Kingston, A. School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire, UK. NeuroReport 2009 August; 20 (12): 1056-1060.
  3. Swearing, euphemisms, and linguistic relativity. Bowers, J.S., Pleydell-Pearce, C.W. Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol, Bristol. PLoS One. 2011;6(7):e22341.
  4. Swearing As a Response to Pain. Stephens, R., Atkins, J., Kingston, A. School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire, UK. NeuroReport 2009 August; 20 (12): 1056-1060.
  5. Swearing As a Response to Pain. Stephens, R., Atkins, J., Kingston, A. School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire, UK. NeuroReport 2009 August; 20 (12): 1056-1060.
  6. Swearing As a Response to Pain. Stephens, R., Atkins, J., Kingston, A. School of Psychology, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire, UK. NeuroReport 2009 August; 20 (12): 1056-1060.

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