The Biological Power of Words
Do your words make helpful deposits or costly withdrawals from others?
Humans are a social species and being part of this means we help regulate each other’s equilibrium, we tend to live longer and loving relationships are definitely good for our health. Have you ever been upset by a text, a comment or an eyebrow raise? Have you ever felt joy at reading poetry or receiving a letter, email or card from someone you care about? The power words have over our biology can span great distances (not just geographically). There is now clear evidence that the mind and the body are explicitly linked. Research shows that we can alter someone’s nervous system very quickly with words because the glorious brain regions that process language also control the major organs and systems that support our equilibrium. Raising our voice can affect someone’s heart rate, making it go up and down, it can adjust the glucose entering the bloodstream or change the chemical flow that supports the immune system.
If we aren’t mindful with our words in the short term, thankfully there is no physical harm done on the body, our equilibrium is taxed only momentarily, the body recovers and the brain might even be slightly stronger afterwards. Evolution gifted us with a nervous system that can cope with these sorts of temporary metabolic changes and it may even benefit from them (in complex post-traumatic stress this is not the case). If we find ourselves stressed over and over again without much opportunity to recover, we could accrue an equilibrium imbalance which is caused by chronic stress. The human brain doesn’t seem to be able to distinguish between different sources of chronic stress which can include the biological effects of words.
Depositing or Withdrawing?
Completely outside of our awareness, we make deposits into other people’s equilibrium along with withdrawals by what we say, listen and how we respond. Our nervous systems are bound up with the behaviour of others, the best thing for our own nervous system is another human being and in certain circumstances it can also be the worst thing. It is metabolically expensive for the brain to deal with things that are hard to predict for example; what someone else thinks, how a text came across and if someone doesn’t appear to be listening to you. Next time you use words whether it be in the spoken or the written word pause and ask yourself if you are making a helpful deposit or a costly withdrawal from someone else’s equilibrium? Similarly, next time you observe yourself becoming upset by someone else's words you can make a choice how to take something or healthily challenge how they transact with you.
Gail Donnan works within the interdisciplinary and transpersonal psychology and psychotherapy fields, she is a trauma-informed therapist and has an integrative approach to health care.
She is the founder of The Trauma Centre in Ripon, North Yorkshire.
Feldman-Barrett, L. Seven And A Half Lessons About The Brain – Picador 2020