I still remember the first time I swore. I was in the sixth grade. I shocked myself at the slip of my tongue, worried about the repercussions of uttering a foul word in the school yard. Fortunately my minor misdeed went unnoticed by my teachers and my permanent record remained unblemished (until I brought my older cousin’s ‘boys in swimwear’ calendar to school in grade eight). I don’t think I swore for another three years. I just don’t have a potty-mouth. Husband tends to giggle when I swear, the words sound so unnatural. Cussing remains a linguistic taboo and even the most prolific of swearers will show restraint at the office or around small children. To this day my own swearing is restricted to late-night toe stubbings, bumping my ill-named “funny bone” on my desk, and computer malfunctions. Why do the expletives flow when I’m in pain or deeply frustrated?
Stephens and colleagues (2009) studied the relation between swearing and the experience of pain. Many assume that swearing as a response to pain is maladaptive. By encouraging catastrophising and drawing focus to negative thoughts and ideas, swearing is thought to decrease pain tolerance and increase pain awareness. The presumed result? More pain. However, this hypothesis had never been empirically tested. The researchers questioned the dogma, wondering why a curse-filled response to pain was so prolific if swearing only serves to exacerbate the negative sensations. Anecdotally, many people feel a release of pain with a well-timed curse. I will admit to a less than ladylike thought or two during a particularly tough slog. I call it the “angry run” and I get some sort of weird boost of power when I’m completely PO’d. It may be a psychological placebo, but dark thoughts do sometime help me get to the metaphorical finish line. I’ve heard more than a few runners curse hills, the wall, the runners around them, and the air they are breathing, so this is not an unheard of reaction to a challenging run. Would we be better off thinking about rainbows and lollipops or should we let the swear words fly? As Stephens et al. asked, will a good blasphemy minimize our (aches and) pains?
Pain, in their study, was measured by submerging the unclenched nondominant hand in freezing water for as long as possible. During submersion, participants either repeatedly uttered a cuss word or a neutral word of their choice. As it turns out, people can handle more pain for a longer duration when swearing. Both pain tolerance increased and pain perception decreased, opposite to what one would predict under a “swearing is maladaptive” hypothesis. Profanities, it seems, are hypoalgesic – they serve to lessen the experience of pain. Furthermore, fear of pain typically predicts pain, except when one is swearing. This hypoalgesic effect may, in part, stem from a reduction in the aspect of the pain experience that is caused or exacerbated by the fear of pain. Think about the pain you fear. Now imagine ameliorating that pain simply by cursing a little mantra. F-bombing The Wall comes to mind. Telling the DOMS to go to H-E-Double-hockey-sticks. That sort of thing.
Is it true that women can handle more pain? In this study men were able to tolerate the cold water for longer, although both men and women showed similar increases in tolerance under conditions of swearing. Interestingly though, swearing offers the gals more relief from their perceived pain. Perhaps because men swear more often than women the words become less potent and therefore less effective at reducing perceived pain. Over-use it and lose it! Although females report more pain catastrophising than men, only catastrophising males showed a diminished hypoalgesic effect. Once a man starts exaggerating and fixating on the pain no amount of swearing can help him, but even the most embellishing of women can still benefit from a linguistic release. Uttering a profanity may help some of the people some of the time, but it isn’t a cure-all.
Why does swearing make you feel better? Theories abound, mostly emphasizing the emotional networks in the brain. The limbic system, in response to a threat, will initiate a fight-or-flight response. The classic fear response is characterized by an increased heart rate, a state of readiness, and pain inhibition. Swearing, by eliciting an alarm reaction, may initiate that same fight or flight response. The authors speculate that aggression, rather than fear, may underlie the alarm response generated by swearing. Swearing, they propose, “may serve to raise levels of aggression, downplaying feebleness in favour of a more pain-tolerant machismo”. If you need a little “pain-tolerant machismo” during your next tough run try the R-rated blue streak.
Reference: Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain. NeuroReport, 20, 1056-1060.
Title Reference: Gwen Stefani – Hollaback Girl. From the album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. 2005.