Words frazzle me. They make me nervous. The things people say, when and how they say them, the stories my brain makes up in response to the words people say, all have an impact on my adrenal glands – I am constantly on a homeostatic roller coaster as I interact with other word-using beings on the planet. When the products secreted by my adrenal glands – stress hormones – flood my brain and body, they raise my inflammation levels. Raised inflammation levels are associated with all kinds of nasty life experiences from hyperthyroidism to flatulence. Especially nerve-wracking, all too often, are the words my own brain generates.
Bad News Triggers My HPA Circuitry
Recently an investment I have in a drug company’s stock received the good news I was anticipating. The news came after the market closed. My brain and I spent a good part of the night generating happy words in anticipation of the riches I would be reaping come morning. However, when morning came, the price of the stock actually opened lower! Apparently all the good news was already baked in. I could feel the anger, disappointment and frustration building. The internal word-generation did a complete one-eighty. Many of those words were not saying kind things to me about me. Time to take the dogs for a walk in order to discharge those stress hormones triggered by my Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis 😦
(One of the great things about dogs is they rarely use words that dysregulate me; the main communications I receive from our dogs are: 1. It’s time to eat; 2. I have to go to the bathroom; 3. It’s time to go to the dog park!; and 4. I’m SOOO happy you’re home!! These are all communications my nervous system has very little difficulty managing).
In the Neurobiology class on addiction I recently taught at Bastyr University, we did a simple experiment with words and how they affect the nervous system. I invited people to pay attention to how their bodies responded to first one and then another word I said aloud to them. The first word I announced boldly and authoritatively. That word was “NO!” The next word I said more softly and with kindness in my voice – “Yes!”
As you might expect, there were noticeable differences in how each word made people’s body musculature react. No caused constriction in the throat and tightening in the belly for some people, along with a holding of their breath. Yes allowed them to soften their belly, relax their muscles and breathe much easier. From this simple experiment it becomes easy to see that words have neuroceptive effects. That is, depending upon a whole host of factors such as context, voice tone, intention of the speaker, etc, words can frequently show up in threatening ways and affect our nervous system adversely without us even realizing it. For an unmistakable experience of this ability for spoken language to adversely affect us, watch any of the Hannibal Lecter movies. Notice how you feel whenever Anthony Hopkins speaks to any other character on the screen. Hello, Clarice. Creepy, right?
As young children, because parents are human and have limitations and difficulty managing their own adrenal glands, we are many times more likely to hear the words No! and Stop! repeatedly. As you might expect, this (and any multitude of other things) works to shape our developing nervous system. In fact, it’s an infant’s recognition of “not us,” often implicitly and unconsciously communicated by a parent’s stress response to other races, that rascism – a fearful response to other races – begins in the cradle.
All the words we use daily in our interactions with other people (and with ourselves) are constantly affecting the amount and speed of stress hormone secretion throughout the day. What I find generally is that artists, who rely upon one or more of their senses being wide open in the pursuit of their art, are often much more sensitive to the impacts that words have on their nervous system. As a result, many of them elect to spend a disproportionate amount of time in voluntary seclusion or hanging out with a small circle of friends who can be counted on to not adversely hyper-arouse them. Here on Whidbey Island – with a preponderance of painters, writers, musicians and poets – which makes it “off the charts in arts vitality” – this propensity seems to show up in spades.
Wipe Me Down With a Wet Noodle
Some words in the English language (and research suggests such words actually exist in every language) are so disturbing that they produce “a visceral experience of revulsion and discomfort.” According to Scientific American one such word is moist. Roughly 20% of Americans find the word moist to be the equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard! Go figure. Or better yet, stick your finger in your mouth. Whatever it takes to solidify the truth of the greater reality that, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” … but only after I gain practice in managing my neurophysiology skillfully.