“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” (Rudyard Kipling)

“To express oneself badly is not only faulty as far as the language goes, but does some harm to the soul,” Plato says. Building on this reflection, Gabriel Liiceanu makes a compelling case for proper and elegant speech, arguing that the corruption of language (a common good that doesn’t belong solely to us) leads to the disregard of other rules upon which a society is built. Ultimately, the philosopher says that, “the reflex of rigour will be banished from our souls, and all subsequent conventions of life will fall into the pattern of ‘this will also do just fine’.”

Expressing ourselves properly is not a mere whim. We should all be concerned with knowing the correct norms of speech (and writing). But why don’t we treat the healing use of words with the same zeal? Those around us need understanding, appreciation, encouragement, and whenever possible, positive feedback. Perhaps we have a rich and nuanced vocabulary, but how aware are we, when using our words, that they can be either a balm to the soul or weapons with which we wound?

We know from experience how amazing the power of words can be, no matter how volatile they may seem. Words can tenderly revive withered days, erase pains etched into the heart’s furrows, and fill the cubbyholes of a promising day with light. Words can just as easily shatter the tranquillity of the soul with its heavy tread, sweeping away the joy of a moment, having the power to divert a person from their path, condemning them to fumble in the dark.

We speak and are spoken to with all sorts of words—words of blessing, healing words, stinging words, memorable words, and not a few burdensome words. Given the impact of this tangled web of words which we wrap around one another, we should carefully filter what we say to others (and even to ourselves).

Words that heal us

Pain is an ideal habitat for worry to flourish,” say the authors of a 2007 study that examines the connection between chronic pain and worry.

Building on this association, researchers David Hauser and Norbert Schwarz conducted a study in 2016 that highlighted the sensitivity we have, as patients, to words that typically have a neutral meaning. When interpreting an ambiguous medical result, study participants tended to view it negatively if the doctor used the verbs “cause” or “trigger” and positively if the chosen verb was “produce.” In a new context, people tend to transfer meaning between words (some with a positive connotation acquire a negative one and vice versa, as a result of the frequent use of these terms in positive or negative contexts), a phenomenon that researchers call “semantic prosody.”

In an article published in 2018 in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, Hauser and Schwarz recommend healthcare professionals to use, whenever possible, phrases and words that do not emphasise the idea of suffering and discomfort when discussing medical recovery procedures.

“In musculoskeletal rehabilitation, we should remain eternally vigilant about how our words may be interpreted”, say the authors, emphasising that, while “human beings consist of muscles, bones, and tissues, (…) the words we use in therapy can have a profound influence on how people make sense of their bodies and how they interpret what they are experiencing.” Referring to studies that show psychological factors are better predictors of disability and pain levels than pathological ones, the two professors note that ignoring psychological factors can affect the recovery process of patients. The words chosen by medical professionals have the potential to either heal or cause significant harm, Hauser and Schwarz say. “Like drugs, words have an ability to change the way another person thinks and feels,” the researchers say.

Verbal encouragement improved performance in a balance test, according to a 2021 study. Study participants, amateur athletes, were selected from a state university’s student body and divided into two groups: healthy subjects and those dealing with chronic ankle instability.

The study found that the performance of students with chronic ankle instability in balance tests increased with verbal encouragement (prompts like “Come on, come on, come on!” or “Go as far as you can!”), but that of healthy subjects remained unchanged. Data from previous research shows that ankle sprains are one of the most common injuries suffered by athletes, and individuals with ankle sprains often have difficulties in regaining their pre-injury level of functionality and experience more recurrences.

Furthermore, 40% of these individuals go on to develop chronic ankle instability. Other studies have highlighted the fear of movement in patients with chronic ankle instability, as well as the fact that stress worsens postural instability. Therefore, the authors of the 2021 study concluded that verbal encouragement helped students with this condition boost their self-esteem and control their fear.

While coaches or fans sometimes use criticism and reproach to fuel athletes’ ambition, it’s encouragement that increases motivation and leads to better results. In a study conducted by the University of Essex, Dr. Paul Freeman provided assistance to golf players by listening to their concerns and offering encouragement and assurances that everything would be fine before sporting competitions. The players’ performance improved, on average, by 1.78 strokes per round, a significant result for a competitive sport. Freeman stated that the study’s results are revealing of the effects of social support, given the impact that a stranger’s support had on sports performance.

Just as with the right words, the effect of negative ones can be immediately noticeable, but we often don’t realise their long-term impact. Although intangible and seemingly fragile, words shape our view of the world, life, and ourselves, and at a young age, words can act as a chisel that literally sculpts our brains.

Words that cripple us

Even a brief glance, just for a few seconds, at a list of negative words can worsen the mood of an anxious or depressed person. If the onslaught of negative thoughts isn’t stopped, it can affect the cognitive structures that regulate memory, emotions, and feelings.

Negative words can give rise to biases from an early age, according to a recent study involving children aged 4 to 9. The children were divided into smaller groups and engaged in an activity. At one point, an adult in the room participated in a video call discussing a fictional group of people (referred to as Flurps or Gearoos). While some groups of children were not exposed to any negative messages about these fictional characters, others listened to negative descriptions of them (they are mean people, they have bad language, wear strange clothes, and have a disgusting diet).

The children exposed to this conversation showed significantly more negative attitudes toward the fictional group immediately after witnessing the conversation, as well as two weeks after the experiment. This effect was more pronounced in children between 7 and 9 years old but negligible for those in the 4-5 age group. Study coordinator Emily Conder admitted not knowing the explanation for these differences in bias formation but suggested it could be due to shorter attention spans and reduced information absorption capacity in young children.

When a child is not only exposed to negative, aggressive messages but also becomes their target, the long-term damage can be substantial. Psychiatry professor Martin Teicher has conducted several studies highlighting the physical and emotional consequences of verbal abuse.

One study found that verbal aggression is associated with psychiatric symptoms, with the effects on a child’s development being more severe than growing up in a household with domestic violence. Researchers also discovered that verbal abuse has effects comparable to those of sexual abuse.

Exposure to verbal abuse from peers has also been linked to a higher risk of psychiatric symptoms. The most harmful effects were observed during the middle school years, with verbal harassment leading to changes in white matter in the brain.

Verbal aggression may be downplayed in comparison to other forms of aggression, but it should never be treated lightly, psychiatry professor Martin Teicher says. He points out that the experiences we go through literally shape our brain, a highly adaptable organ.

In the case of women who have experienced domestic violence (or what the World Health Organization calls “intimate partner violence”), studies have found a strong association between verbal violence and depression.

To maintain a harmonious romantic relationship, psychologist John Gottman suggests that it takes five positive interactions for every negative one. A single positive interaction isn’t enough to counteract a negative one, so a 1:1 ratio is an indication that the relationship is in jeopardy. Gottman’s research has shown that marital relationships can be seriously damaged by criticism (as well as defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) and that 80% of couples who tolerate these behaviours are at risk of divorce.

Our everyday language reveals more than just the socioeconomic category we belong to. It speaks of our motivations, the wounds ingrained within us, the communication patterns inherited, and the effort we have (or haven’t) put into taming our words. And, ultimately, it unveils the health of our souls.

If we already have well-trodden paths in the labyrinth of criticism and sarcasm, if we breathe in the steam of angry or discouraging words with relish, if we feast on the toxic banquet of gossip, perhaps we shouldn’t be as concerned about food additives or excess salt and sugar.

To have a truly healthy lifestyle, we should think and speak in a way that wouldn’t make us ashamed to take a group photo with all 16,000 words we utter in a single day. 

Carmen Lăiu is an editor of Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.