- Studies show cursing during a physically painful event can help us better tolerate the pain.
- Experts say using curse words can also help us build emotional resilience and cope with situations in which we feel that we have no control.
- Swearing can also provide a range of other benefits, including as a means of creative expression, relationship development, or simply as a way to allow different identities to harmonize by signaling that you’re relaxed around the other person.
We’ve all had plenty of reasons to want to drop more than one f-bomb in the last year.
Living in a pandemic has given us all cause to express our frustrations, whether from the ongoing confusing restrictions to the fear of what may happen if you contract the coronavirus.
But used appropriately and responsibly, it turns out that sporadic outbursts of cursing, cussing, swearing — whatever the heck you may call it — are a good way to process the chaos of being human in a world where much isn’t under our control.
“Swearing can have a truly liberating effect when we’re feeling bottled up with frustration. Saying the F-word, or similar, can have an immediate calming impact on the difficult emotions we might be experiencing,” Dr. Raffaello Antonino, a counseling psychologist and the clinical director and founder of Therapy Central, told Healthline.
Using profanity remains a controversial issue because we are living, feeling human beings who are tossed into a complex world built long before we were born.
There’s shared experiences, language, social norms, and the constant battle between inanimate objects and fragile human beings with complex sensory networks.
But those networks created language, and in that language are many four-letter words, some of which only a devil would advise to utter during a worship service, despite the heavenly number of combinations in which they can be used.
This includes the seven words George Carlin so famously pointed out that you can’t say on television.
“People often swear when they are stressed, faced with a challenge, or are otherwise experiencing an increase in the activation of their sympathetic nervous system. When people swear, they experience a release, either slight or significant, in physiological and psychological stress,” Dr. Kyle Zrenchik, PhD, a couples and sex therapist and co-founder of All In Therapy, told Healthline.
“What a tremendous gift we have: no pills, no side effects, no copays. We have a totally natural, free, and readily accessible way to take the edge off of things, even if just a bit,” he said.
One such way is by aiding in short-term pain relief, like when you stub your toe on the coffee table.
Researchers at Keele University in the United Kingdom found that people could endure the stinging and numbing pain of holding their hands in ice water longer if they were able to fire off expletives in the process compared to saying more neutral words.
But there’s a notable catch: Those same effects weren’t seen in participants who admitted to the highest levels of everyday swearing, defined up to 60 swear words per day.
“Swearing is a very emotive form of language, and our findings suggest that overuse of swear words can water down their emotional effect,” Dr. Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University and co-author of the study, said in a statement when the research was released.
“Used in moderation, swearing can be an effective and readily available short-term pain reliever if, for example, you are in a situation where there is no access to medical care or painkillers. However, if you’re used to swearing all the time, our research suggests you won’t get the same effect,” he said.
It’s almost as if cursing too much can lose its effectiveness, so swearing is most impactful when used less often (which your mother would most likely prefer).
Experts say cursing can act as a coping mechanism to a variety of different adverse events.
“The way swearing works, in these circumstances, is as a form of coping mechanism to deal with the emotional consequences of various difficult situations, especially those we have little or no control over and that cause us to feel disappointed, that we’ve been treated [unfairly], experience persistent or acute physical pain, and so on,” Antonino said.
Antonino said humans are resilient to adversity in part because we’ve developed ways to cope, regardless of whether such coping responses will actually be helpful in changing a person’s circumstances.
He explained that, in situations when nothing really can be done to “resolve” our issue — like when we receive a very annoying email from our boss or learn of yet another spike in COVID-19 cases in our area — there may not be a single effective action we can take to fix the problem.
“But swearing in these circumstances can represent an important way of releasing the difficult emotional reactions provoked by such events,” he said.
In other words, firing off some four-letter words when things are bad won’t actually help make the situation better, but it does offer a bit of respite that could be enough to help us weather a brief storm.
And while some research suggests swearing more can dull its pain-reducing effects, Antonino said it can help build our resilience in the face of potential new adverse circumstances we have little control over.
“It’s important to point out that although swearing will not resolve our issues practically, it can help calm and resolve our internal emotional imbalance caused by those experiencing these external issues,” he said. “In essence, swearing can be an effective short-term emotion-regulation tool.”
Zrenchik said there are other benefits, including creative expression, relationship development, or simply allowing our identities to harmonize.
“Most people swear, whether they admit it or not. They may not swear in front of others, but most people swear,” Zrenchik said.
“When people are forced to talk differently when interacting with people than when they talk to themselves or close friends, they develop two competing ‘identities,’” he said.
But by allowing ourselves the freedom to swear when talking to others, like we do when we talk to ourselves, Zrenchik said it allows people the freedom to live a bit more authentically and honestly.
This not only creates greater congruence of identity, but also helps develop relationships.
“It signals to each person that they can relax, be themselves, and speak freely without fear. We tend to ‘watch our language’ around people we cannot fully be ourselves around,” he said.
“Conversely, shared swearing allows us a way to know we are amongst friends. Then, we are more equipped to build an honest and authentic relationship,” Zrenchik said.
But there’s a difference between swearing with someone and swearing at someone.
While there’s actual evidence to back up the unrelenting urge to shout a few bad words into the abyss, that’s where it should go — not to the person scanning your items at a grocery store or the person who isn’t driving to your exacting standards.
Those four-letter words are best reserved for the ether.
Or you can use them in the form of creative expression under the protection of the First Amendment.
“Swearing is not just about expressing anger. It can also be an expression of creativity. Some swearing is simply creative,” Zrenchik said.
Zrenchik said cussing has numerous benefits when used appropriately, from using “f*ck” in protest chants to women’s groups calling themselves Stitch ’n B*tch.
“And the 1,000 different ways people turn swear words into funny, inspiring, and ingenious phrases is nothing short of a creative medium,” Zrenchik said.
F*ck yeah it is.