Even if you’re one of the most clean-mouthed people on the planet, I wouldn’t be surprised if a resounding F-bomb has erupted from your mouth upon stepping on a LEGO, closing your finger in a door, stubbing your toe or whacking your elbow on the corner of the kitchen counter. It’s natural! And, it's true, it can even help to decrease the pain that would now be radiating through every nerve ending in your body. Damn counters.
Now, I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve put this to the test time (and time...) again. Does it work? No idea -- how am I to know if the pain I’m feeling after knocking a knee into the coffee table is any more tolerable than it would have been had I kept my mouth shut? Nevertheless, it makes me feel a little more in control of a 30-second situation that otherwise feels unbearable and unnecessary.
But who does know? Psychologist Richard Stephens, who’s become the resident expert on physiological responses to pain resulting from swearing.
Cursing used to be thought of as a contributor to catastrophizing, or thinking that a bad thing happening to you is the very worst thing. But Stephens wasn’t down with that explanation, given that a lot of people, when confronted with pain, immediately have a knee-jerk reaction to exclaim some profanity or another. Why would we shout a curse word if our bodies thought it would make us feel worse?
To figure it out, Stephens has conducted a number of studies to test how swearing affects the body’s reaction to certain stimuli. He started in 2009 at Keele University in Staffordshire, England, where dozens of undergrad students held their hands under ice water to see how long they could stand it. One group did it while cursing, while the other uttered neutral words. They found that the curse words made it possible for the students’ hands to stay submerged longer.
Almost a decade later, Stephens put a number of participants through short but intense workouts, allowing some to swear and others to say random, neutral words. Lo and behold, those who were cursing performed better.
This checks out -- pain is more psychological than biological, and anything from your mood and personality to extenuating circumstances and previous pain experiences can affect how we perceive physical pain. Hence why personal trainers will yell at you to “push yourself” and “fight through it”: It’s possible probable that your body can be pushed to new limits if your mind allows it to be.
To explain the results of his experiments, Stephens originally believed swearing lessened our pain because it triggered a fight or flight response. Believe it or not, cursing actually produces mild stress in our bodies -- I know, weird, right? Considering we often swear to reduce stress. But it sets up a defensive response in us, pumping adrenaline into and increasing our heart rates, if ever so slightly. In this way, your body is better prepared to fight back against whatever threat it's facing. In this case, pain.
“When we swear, it sends a message to the amygdala [the emotional response center] in the brain,” Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D, explained to NBC News. “The words themselves don’t help us to better tolerate pain -- but the emotional and physical reaction that we have by saying the words triggers the fight or flight response, which then gives us that burst of energy to make it through the difficult or painful task.”
This may very well still be true, but the exercise experiment did not result in the same response; no fight or flight response was triggered during the workouts. So, swearing may do something else to our brains besides low-key stressing us out.
One thing to note: Cursing too often will render this pain tolerance null and void. Stephens found that habitual swearers didn’t have as strong of a response to repeating expletives as those who tend keep it clean did.
TL;DR: Swearing does, in fact, help you deal with pain, but save your F-bombs for when it really hurts.