In this week’s spotlight I would like to discuss the power of words. In an earlier article I have discussed words as slicers and dicers—reflecting on one of my old modified sayings, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will slice and dice me.”
Slice and Dice
When we think of hurtful words, we usually think of their emotional toll. How nasty words said in the past feel—then and sometimes still today. The emotional sting from some words can last a lifetime, but setting that aside for a moment, do you know what words can do to the brain?
Did you know that stress can literally shrink neurons? Think about that for a moment, what is stress but they way we interpret our interaction with the environment we live in. In other words, it’s a mental thing that is usually accompanied by a verbal description—painting a vivid picture of our stress. We talk to ourselves with words that describe but also interpret our situation. Our boss is unbelievably difficult, the heat is horrible, the traffic just wants to make me shout at someone, and so forth. In other words, our internal verbal description defines our stress and this in turn perpetuates our belief that the stress is due to an outside influence and not a product of our own interpretation.
Stress Shrinks Neurons
The fact is, stress is different for different people depending on their unique interpretations. For one person, jumping out of an airplane would be unmanageably stressful and for another great fun. For one person, doing the best we can in heavy traffic might mean playing music we love or an audio book, and for another it is a dreaded event. We spin the events in our life and in so doing, have some control over whether we allow them to stress us. We all know stress is unhealthy, but thanks to the research at Stanford University, we now also know that it damages our brain.
Stress leads to a build up of glucocorticoids. Quoting from the Stanford press release, “Glucocorticoids can cause rats’ brain cells to shrivel, as the dendrite branches that they use to communicate with other neurons wither away. Prolonged exposure can kill the neurons or make them vulnerable to destruction during a brain injury or stroke.”1
Gratitude Changes Brain Structure
Now think about another aspect of that ever-present dialog going on in your head. How much of your self-talk is gratitude oriented? How much is blame or victim role oriented? Do you wake up in the morning grateful for another day? Or is “Thank God it’s Friday” a wishful part of your self-talk? Do you look forward to your day or is it a ritual you must endure?
Gratitude has been shown to change “the molecular structure of the brain, keeping gray matter functioning, and making us healthier and happier.”2 Simply by changing the way we talk to ourselves, by beginning each morning with a “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” can not just change your expectation but alter the structure of your brain.
Words Can Change Gene Expression
Did you know that a single word has the power to change your gene expression? Quoting from Therese J. Borchard, Editor of PsychCentral, reviewing the work of Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, “Positive words, such as ‘peace’ and ‘love,’ can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning…[whereas] a single negative word can increase the activity in our amygdala (the fear center of the brain). This releases dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, which in turn interrupts our brains’ functioning.”3
Do you know what the most dangerous word in our world seems to be? Try this one:
If I were to put you into an fMRI scanner—a huge donut-shaped magnet that can take a video of the neural changes happening in your brain—and flash the word “NO” for less than one second, you’d see a sudden release of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals immediately interrupt the normal functioning of your brain, impairing logic, reason, language processing, and communication.
In fact, just seeing a list of negative words for a few seconds will make a highly anxious or depressed person feel worse, and the more you ruminate on them, the more you can actually damage key structures that regulate your memory, feelings, and emotions. You’ll disrupt your sleep, your appetite, and your ability to experience long-term happiness and satisfaction.
If you vocalize your negativity, or even slightly frown when you say “no,” more stress chemicals will be released, not only in your brain, but in the listener’s brain as well. The listener will experience increased anxiety and irritability, thus undermining cooperation and trust. In fact, just hanging around negative people will make you more prejudiced toward others!4
The bottom line is obvious. Be kind to yourself. Choose to be grateful. Choose to treat yourself kindly with positive words. Choose to treat other with positive words. Think of your language, both in your head and out of your mouth, as potentially a helpful vaccine or a contaminating virus.
We created our InnerTalk programs to assist you in rewriting the negative stream of self-talk, converting it into positive life supporting inner talk. If you experience negative self-talk, then InnerTalk can help you turn the old negative no-don’t programming into a positive self-supporting stream of consciousness. However you do it, do remember, the words you think have as much or more power than the words you speak, especially on you!
Thanks for the read and as always, I welcome your feedback.
- Sapolsky, R. 1996. “New studies of human brains show stress may shrink neurons.” Stanford News Service.
- Walia, A. 2019. “Scientists Show How Gratitude Literally Alters The Human Heart & Molecular Structure Of The Brain.” Collective Evolution. February 14, 2019.
- Borchard, T. 2019. “Words Can Change Your Brain.”PsychCentral. May 27, 2019.
- Newberg, A. & Waldman, M. 2012. “The Most Dangerous Word in the World.” Psychology Today.August 1, 2012.