Swearing Heals Emotional Pain, Too


When someone physically hurts themselves, it’s not surprising to hear some expletives erupt from the injured. When it comes to heartbreak, we could all benefit from a swearing session, according to a new study.

A small New Zealand study hypothesized that physical and emotional pain stem from the same place, a theory known as the Pain Overlap Theory. The study’s lead author, Michael Philipp, said the theory is based on the suggestion that social pain has the same effects as physical pain.

Credit: sifotography/123RF Stock Photo

“Previous research suggests that social stressors, like rejection and ostracism, not only feel painful but also increase peoples’ sensitivity to physical pain,” he said in a press release. “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.”

Social pain is “the feeling of suffering brought on when social connections are lost or threatened.” Social belonging is just as critical to humans and their well-being as physical health, the study said.

Humans develop attachment systems that promote an individual’s survival, such as caring for children, sharing food and defense from predators. It’s suggested that social connectedness became so critical to our ancestors that the social attachment system began to use the biological systems that are seen with physical pain, the study said.

Related: New Research Breaks Stereotype of Women Being More Emotional

Philipp said studies in the U.S. have looked into other methods for helping to heal physical and social pain, but none of the studies investigated swearing and how it can help with both physical and social distress. The study analyzed 70 participants split into two groups.

Individuals in the study wrote about a social event that caused them distress, so that they could experience the feeling they first felt when the event took place. They were then instructed to speak either a curse word or non-curse word out loud.

“The results suggest that socially distressed participants who swore out loud experienced less social pain than those who did not,” Philipp said.

Related: Music Therapy May Reduce Pain After Surgery

Those who didn’t swear reported feeling more social pain and greater sensitivity to physical pain. Philipp said before swearing, people should be aware of the social context around them and of other people in their presence.

He said swearing daily or even in smaller, less-aggravating situations could diminish the effect of swearing when it’s needed the most in more painful situations. The social taboo of swearing could play into its effectiveness as a treatment for emotional pain, but there isn’t a proven reason why swearing works, Philipp said.

“There is still speculation about why swearing aloud has the effect it does on physical pain and social pain,” he said. “What’s clear is that swearing is not a completely maladaptive reaction to a sore thumb or a broken heart.”