Be honest, you know you’ve said ‘bad’ words. Who hasn’t? According to a recent report from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), about a third of people say they use strong language more than they did five years ago.

When we were little, we might have been threatened with having our mouths washed out with soap for it but, ironically, swearing can help us get through some important social situations. We can use our potty mouth to make people laugh. We can curse with our buddies or co-workers to show solidarity. Or we might pop out a profanity simply because we are deliriously happy, or angry, or scared, or feeling any number of emotions.

But there is also something quite amazing that swearing can do for us: it can help us to feel less pain.

Fight or flight

When we start swearing, the electrical conductivity of our skin is affected. Our heart rate speeds up and we might even get cold, sweaty palms. These responses are what Dr Richard Stephens and his team at Keele University believe to be the first signs of a fight or flight response, when our brain perceives a threat.

For our distant ancestors, this may have been the sight of an approaching animal with big teeth and claws, but these days our stressors are more likely to be unwanted bills, traffic jams and delayed trains. The aim of fight or flight is to get us away from the perceived threat or to stay and fight it.

Our body starts pumping adrenaline and other hormones through our body, making us hyper-alert and ready for action. Stephens, a researcher and senior lecturer in psychology, wanted to know whether swearing altered a person’s experience of pain. He got 67 university students to immerse their hands in ice cold water for as long as they could tolerate, whilst repeating a swear word. The participants repeated the test on a separate occasion, but this time they were asked to repeat a neutral non-swear word.

The team found that while neutral words didn’t work to alleviate pain, swear words did — and in a big way. Participants who swore could keep their hand in the icy water for up to 40 seconds longer and reportedly felt less pain. It was found that when the participants swore, their heart rates went up, so the researchers theorised that swearing triggered the fight or flight response.

...while neutral words didn't work to alleviate pain, swear words did — and in a big way...

This might appear logical if we think of swearing sometimes being used as a form of self-defence. However, swearing can help us express other emotions too. Writing for The Conversation, Stephens said: “[the results suggest participants] had an emotional response to swearing and an activation of the fight or flight response: a natural defence mechanism that not only releases adrenalin and quickens the pulse, but also includes a natural pain relief known as stress-induced analgesia.”

But it seems that how we feel about swearing could be important. Research suggests that our reactions to swear words generate emotional reactions in part through verbal conditioning. This means that you can thank those people who took care of and influenced you when you were a child, because they’re the ones who had the greatest impact on how you feel about swearing as an adult.

If you lived with your Aunt Neddy who swore 50 times a day and encouraged you to do the same, you would probably have grown up believing that it is normal and acceptable. Or maybe you were the kind of kid who was horrified at anyone who swore because your parents told you how sinful, bad, or stupid it would make you look. Later on in life, that early experience will have determined how useful swearing could be to you in moments of stress.

So here’s the good news for all of you who prefer not to turn the air blue. If swearing is not your thing, then doing it when you are in pain might help you to feel better. But if you are a habitual swearer, bad luck. In Stephens’ team’s first study, nine of the 67 participants showed no benefit from swearing, and the question was raised: does the amount we swear per day alter the benefits of swearing on pain tolerance?

To find out, Stephens repeated the original experiment with the additional variable of daily swearing frequency. This time, 71 university students immersed their hands in cold water with similar results — swearing increased pain tolerance and heart rate compared with not swearing. And, interestingly, the higher the daily swearing frequency, the less benefit derived from swearing as pain relief.

Dr Stephens said: “Swearing is a very emotive form of language and our findings suggest that overuse of swear words can water down their emotional effect...”

In other words, if you swear a lot, you’ve most likely become desensitised to it and you ought to cut back.

And does it matter which swear word you use? According to Stephens, it probably does. He said: “We have unpublished data suggesting that stronger swear words facilitate greater pain tolerance”; which goes to show that having a colourful vocabulary may not be such a bad thing after all.

But if you want your child to benefit in later life from the healing power of profanities, go by the old adage: not in front of the children.

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