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“Hurts like h*ll” – research shows that swearing is effective in dealing with pain

Most of us were raised to avoid swearing, but we probably do it anyway. For some people, using a powerful word when anger bubbles up or they stub their toe is a real release – and a review of international swearing research has demonstrated that it does have positive effects.

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“Our study shows that the use of taboo words can have a great impact on how we think, act and relate to other people. Swearing is undeniably different to other language use. It is much more powerful and is regarded as cathartic. That experience of catharsis is greater if the person swears in their native language, rather than a second language,” says Kristy Beers Fägersten, professor of English linguistics.

Researchers from the universities of Keele, Westminster and Ulster, as well as Södertörn University, reviewed over a hundred research reports from different disciplines. They all relating to research about swearing, covering subjects such as the words themselves or physical reactions to swearing. It is clear that swearwords arouse strong feelings, manifested through increased heart rate and sweating, as the words trigger a form of flight response.

Swearing has cognitive effects

The research group has written about the review for The Conversation External link., a website for popular science articles. There, they highlight how controlled experiments have demonstrated that swearing can have cognitive effects, one example is that swearwords receive more attention and that people remember them better than other words:

“But they [swearwords] also disrupt the cognitive processing of other words/stimuli – so it also appears that swearwords can sometimes get in the way of thinking.”

However, this does not always have to be a problem. In one experiment, researchers asked people to place their hands in icy water. People who swore because of the pain turned out to have a higher pain threshold. When compared to using neutral words, swearing thus appears to contribute to pain relief and greater pain tolerance. Other studies have demonstrated an increase in physical strength after swearing.

The explanation may lie in our childhood

We do not completely understand why swearwords generate so much emotion and have the effect that they do. One explanation could be that we learn that swearing is bad at an early age, and that children are punished for swearing. This is a reasonable explanation, but not one that the review has found solid evidence for; there are too few studies and the existing ones have weaknesses.

“We need to find out whether people’s personal experiences of swearing in childhood have different effects in later life. We also need to investigate people’s memories, whether swearing was always associated with punishment or whether there were also benefits”.

Read more about this research in The Conversation External link. or read the entire review. External link.

Kristy Beers Fägersten is one of four researchers in this project and is professor of English linguistics at Södertörn University. The other three researchers are: Karyn Stapleton, Ulster University; Richard Stephens, Keele University; Catherine Loveday, University of Westminster.

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