Emma Byrne, PhD, thinks it’s a damn shame cursing gets such a bad rap. “We’ve been socialized to believe that swearing is universally really bad, but it isn’t always about being aggressive, or overwhelmingly negative towards people,” says the computer scientist and author of the new book Swearing Is Good For You ($26, amazon.com). In fact, research suggests dropping the f-bomb comes with some legit mind-body benefits. Here, Byrne highlights four surprising ways curse words can boost your well-being.
Unleashing expletives might actually raise your pain threshold
For a 2009 study done at Keele University in the UK, researchers asked college students to plunge a hand in ice-cold water. They found that when the participants repeated a swear word out loud during the chilly experience, they were able to keep their digits submerged for longer, and reported feeling less pain than when they repeated a neutral word. “Their subjective experience of how bad [their hand] hurt was incredibly different when they were swearing,” says Byrne. “When they were swearing, it didn’t feel as bad.”
One theory is that cursing helps trigger your “fight or flight” response, which raises your heart rate and pumps more adrenaline through your body—two physiological responses that make us more tolerant of pain. So the next time you stub your toe, go ahead and curse out your couch.
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Well-timed curses can help relieve stress
Struggling to get through a tough task? Go ahead and say how you really feel about it. “Studies show that when you put people in stressful situations and tell them they cannot swear, their performance goes down and their experience of stress is much greater,” explains Byrne. She points to research done in airplane cockpits and operating rooms: Pilots and surgeons who are allowed to swear on the job are better able to recover from stressful events (think: tricky takeoffs, or close calls in surgery) compared to pilots and surgeons who aren’t permitted to curse. The takeaway: a string of expletives can be a useful way to blow off some f*cking steam and get the job done.
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Using swear words can help you cope with health issues
“For people recovering from cancer, or who have a long-term chronic illness, swearing is really helpful in terms of processing their emotions,” Byrne says. “With respect to cancer patients, the work particularly on male patients—specifically testicular cancer survivors—shows that [swearing] is a way to talk about sadness and loss without losing face as “masculine,” by crying or admitting to fear, for example.”
Swearing while you sweat may make you physically stronger
You know those grips you can squeeze to build finger, hand, and forearm strength? Well, they work much better if you curse while you squeeze, according to researchers. “We’ve seen that you can exercise much more force on those objects and also do it for longer if you’re swearing while you hold them,” explains Byrne. “It increases your resilience and strength temporarily.”
Give it a try! As you bang out reps at the gym, repeat a few choice words and see what that does for you. And if you ever find yourself in a situation in which you need to summon extreme strength—say, to lift a heavy object off someone trapped beneath it—swear with all your might, says Byrne.
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