Yelling out an expletive after stubbing your toe makes you feel better, right? There has been much research conducted around swearing and its ability to help relieve pain.
A senior lecturer in Psychology at Keele University in the United Kingdom, Professor Richard Stephens, has looked at why swearing has this effect on us.
“We kind of narrowed it down to two possible mechanisms. One is the emotional response from swearing. It rouses your emotion [and that] arouses your body’s autonomic nervous system. It’s an acute stress response,” Professor Stephens told triple j’s Hack program.
“You might have heard of the fight or flight response. We think swearing triggers that a little bit.”
Stephens and his team also found that the physical sensation of swearing could also factor into the pain relief because many swear words are ‘fricatives’. According to Hack, this refers to “the shape our mouths make when we say them cause them to be pushed out and expelled.”
In order to test this theory, Stephen conducted an experiment where participants had to submerge their hands into icy liquid.
“A nice way to do research on pain is to get people to put their hands in ice water, because it’s painful but it isn’t harmful,” Stephens said.
While doing this, participants were asked to utter a widely used swear word starting with f, while others had to use made-up expletives like fouch and twizpipe. The rest of the experiment’s subjects were then asked to say a neutral word.
According to Stephens, fouch is also a fricative, while twizpipe was chosen because it sounds funny.
“We measured how long they can keep their hand in the water [while saying their allocated words], and then we have a nice behavioural measure of how swearing helps people cope with the pain,” he said.
Those who uttered fouch and twizpipe couldn’t keep their hands submerged in the icy water for as long as those who said the f-word.
“It was clear that distraction and humour were doing absolutely nothing at all,” Stephens said.
The ability for swearing to help us deal with pain is down to our emotional connections to these words, says Stephens, as many associate them as being taboo or aggressive.
The effect of swearing isn’t just good for physical pain relief either but can also provide us with a mental release as well.
“Just as it helps with physical pain, [swearing] helps with mental pain, too,” Professor Stephens said.
“Swearing helps people become stronger, for want of a better expression. When people swear in the gym or on a bike it helps them generate more power and do that performance more efficiently.”