Swearing can help you better tolerate physical pain, provided you don’t do much of it in your ordinary daily life.
That conclusion comes from a British research team reporting its latest findings on the analgesic benefit of cussing in The Journal of Pain, the official publication of the American Pain Society.
Back in 2009, Dr. Richard Stephens of the psychology school at Keele University in England experimented with volunteers whose hands were submerged in ice-cold water. He found that those who swore aloud could tolerate the painful discomfort longer than those who spoke “neutral” words.
Now with Claudia Umland he has repeated and refined that research. This time they had 71 volunteers, ranging in age from 18 to 46, fill out questionnaires on how frequently they swear in everyday life before being put through the icy-water test.
Results: Nearly 75% of participants were able to keep their hands in the water longer if they repeated a swear word. However, people who do not swear much during a typical day (not at all or “just a few times”) were able to endure the water challenge for twice as long when they repeated swear words than when they shouted out neutral words. Yet those who swear frequently (up to 60 times) every day “derived no greater benefit from swearing” during the test.
“The higher was the daily swearing frequency, the less was the benefit for pain tolerance when swearing,” the researchers report. “Our hypothesis is that by swearing, the speaker experiences an emotional response due to breaking a taboo, and the emotional response is sufficient to set off…an adrenaline surge…and increased pain tolerance…. Swearing seems to activate deeper parts of the brain more associated with emotions” than normal speech.
But habitual cursing tends to blunt and neutralize the pain-easing effect. Frequent swearers simply don’t feel the same emotional response from cussing. “If you swear too often in everyday situations, the power of swearing won’t be there when you really need it,” Stephens explains. For infrequent cursers, however, “swearing can be an effective and readily available short-term pain reliever if you are in a situation where there is no access to medical care or painkillers.”
Stephens and Umland offer no “recommended daily swearing allowance” and say it “remains unclear” whether certain swear words are more effective pain-relievers than others. “We are just scratching the surface” about the effects of swearing, Stephens says.