New research has found that swearing out loud helps to reduce the emotional pain of things including embarrassment, rejection, and other forms of social distress in much the same way that it soothes physical pain.
The ‘Pain Overlap Theory’ is based on the idea that physical pain is processed in the brain similarly to social pain, such as the kind you feel when you are rejected or humiliated, and the research experiment was conducted to test this theory.
The study involved, as you would suspect, people shouting out swear words in response to feelings of social pain, while others shouted out non-swearwords. Participants who repeated the swearwords reported a reduction in their feelings of emotional pain, as well as in their sensitivity to physical pain. This suggests that physical and social pain are related, as the theory proposes.
Dr. Michael Philipp, author of the study, summarized the findings:
“Previous research suggests that social stressors, like rejection and ostracism, not only feel painful but also increase peoples’ sensitivity to physical pain.
Pain Overlap Theory suggests that social distress feels painful because both social and physical pain is biologically coupled.
Pain Overlap Theory predicts that anything affecting physical pain should have similar effects on social pain.”
What this means is that, when we talk about feeling ‘hurt’ by our partner’s silent treatment, it’s not just a metaphor – we may actually feel the pain similarly to when we catch our finger in the car door.
This also opens the path to exploring methods for managing both physical and social pain by trying options that have proven useful for one, on the other. For example, if mindfulness meditation eases challenging emotions, might it also be effective for dealing with physical pain?
Dr. Philipp notes that the reasons for the effectiveness of swearing out loud on both physical and social pain is still speculative, but admits it’s clearly not an entirely wasted reaction. He also warns that swearing all the time reduces its effectiveness.
So the next time someone breaks your heart or humiliates you, save your tears and try letting loose a few choice profanities instead.
But maybe wait ’til you’re alone.
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