The Impact of Words


Words can make a huge impact on your entire life.

In fact, the vocabulary you use can have a deep impact on your emotions, thoughts, and actions. Words are often internal representations of how people feel and that is how words spoken by others are perceived by our brains. Our words become us and who others believe we are. The good news is that we have the power to instantly change the emotional dynamics of any situation and how we are perceived by choosing the appropriate words. We can choose the emotion behind our words and we can also choose words that will create a successful outcome, something I call a transformational vocabulary. Using a transformational vocabulary and positive emotionally-charged words can create a positive resolution.

The emotional impact of words stems from their connotation. The connotation, or feeling that words give off, can be placed on a spectrum that shows varying degrees of emotional intensity. The higher the emotional intensity, the higher the degree, or toughness, of the words expressing the emotion and the greater emotional impact your words have on yourself and others. For instance, the feeling of anger can be expressed as being “upset,” a word with low negative emotional intensity, or “enraged,” at the other end of the spectrum, with high negative emotional intensity. When words with high emotional intensity are used, the recipients of those words can feel that emotional intensity and will react more intensely in response whether your words are intensely positive or intensely negative. Take a moment to truly experience these next few words: bummed, excited, ecstatic, devastated. You can see the varying impact that different words can have on us. We often make the mistake of using the wrong words to express ourselves and that is where the hurt and misunderstanding, like my parents experienced, enters our lives.

Beyond impacting our emotions, words can also impact our brains. Each word you think or speak reverberates in your system and produces electrical impulses. These impulses affect your nervous and lymphatic systems, which get the brain involved. Positive words such as “peace” and “love” have been found to strengthen parts of the frontal lobes, promote cognitive functioning, propel motivational centers of the brain into action, and build resiliency. Hostile language can disrupt genes that play a part in the production of neurochemicals that protect us from stress. Even a single negative word can increase activity in the amygdala (the fear center of the brain) and release dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters which interrupt the functions of the brain.

The brain communicates directly and indirectly with all parts of the body, meaning that words that affect your brain go on to affect your body and health. For instance, the hormones and neurotransmitters produced by negative emotional words are pumped throughout our body and go on to affect our metabolisms. A negatively-oriented metabolism creates a disease state in the body that our body works over time to compensate for.

To illustrate this, researchers, led by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, conducted a study at the Ohio State University’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. The study involved 42 married couples that made two 24 hour visits to the institute, separated by two months, so researchers could study the effect of positive and negative interactions on their levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, proteins pertinent to healing and reducing inflammation. During their first visit, the couples were directed to focus on positive and supportive interactions. Each husband or wife was asked to talk for 10 minutes about something they would like to change about themselves, with the condition that it couldn’t relate to the marriage itself. At the second visit, the researchers used the couple’s pressure points to get them to argue for 30 minutes.

The researchers taped both the supportive and argumentative interactions and were able to distinguish between the distressed and non-distressed couples. After argumentative interactions, blister wounds healed more slowly than after supportive interactions. The local level of cytokines, which promotes healing, was also higher for supportive couples. Couples with high baseline hostility had higher systemic levels of cytokines in their bodies the morning after an argument than couples with low baseline hostility. High levels of systemic cytokines are linked to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and some cancers. Therefore, emotionally intense words lead to body stress which can lead to disease and even shorter lives.

Words can disease us and destroy us, emotionally and physically. But I want to remind all of you that words also have the power to heal. Effective, mindful communication is possible and it is a practice I use in my own life as well as suggest to all my clients. We can change our words, and through that, change our lives and the lives of others. We can make our marriages better, by expressing our gratitude and our grievances to each other in loving ways. We can cooperate more effectively with our coworkers or co-parents by being actively aware of what we say and how we say it.

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