And swearing doesn’t just help your endurance: If you pinch your finger in the car door, you may well feel less pain if you say ‘s**t” instead of “shoot.”
“The headline message is that swearing helps you cope with pain,” said psychologist Richard Stephens, the lead author of the three studies. Stephens researches swearing at the Psychobiology Research Laboratory at Keele University in Staffordshire, England.
An analgesic response
Stephens says it works like this: swearing produces a stress response that initiates the body’s ancient defensive reflex. A flush of adrenaline increases heart rate and breathing, prepping muscles for fight or flight.
Simultaneously, there is another physiological reaction called an analgesic response, which makes the body more impervious to pain.
“That would make evolutionary sense because you’re going to be a better fighter and better runner if you’re not being slowed down by concerns about pain,” Stephens said.
“So it seems like by swearing you’re triggering an emotional response in yourself, which triggers a mild stress response, which carries with it a stress-induced reduction in pain,” he added.
Some of us get more out of swearing than others. Take people who are more afraid of pain, called “catastrophizers.”
A catastrophizer, Stephens explained, is someone who might have a tiny wound and think, “Oh, this is life threatening. I’m going to get gangrene, I’m going to die.”
“The research found men who were lower catastrophizers seemed to get a benefit from swearing, whereas men who are higher catastrophizers didn’t,” Stephens said. “Whereas with women there wasn’t any difference.”
Swearing is universal
What makes the use of naughty words so powerful? The power of the taboo, of course. That reality is universally recognized: Just about every language in the world contains curse words.
Research on swearing dates back to Victorian times, when physicians discovered that patients who lost their ability to speak could still curse.
Swearing appears to be centered in the right side of the brain, the part people often call the “creative brain.”
“We do know patients who have strokes on the right side tend to become less emotional, less able to understand and tell jokes, and they tend to just stop swearing even if they swore quite a lot before,” said Byrne.
It’s not just people who swear. Even primates curse when given the chance.
Hand-raised chimps who were potty-trained learned sign language for “poo” so they could tell their handlers when they needed the toilet.
“Chimpanzees in the wild tend to use their excrement as a social signal, one that’s designed to keep people away,” Byrne said. “And as soon as they learned the poo sign they began using it like we do the word s**t.”
“So it seems that as soon as you have a taboo word, and the emotional insight that the word is going to cause discomfort for other people, the rest seems to follow naturally,” Byrne said.
“Cursing is just a way of expressing your feelings that doesn’t involve throwing actual s**t. You just throw the idea of s**t around.”
As if we needed more proof we are descended from apes.
If that happens you’ll have to find another way to soldier on … and it better not involve poo.