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Clinical Social Worker/Therapist

There are a few people who rarely swear. I think that those people may be special.

There are others who swear all the time. Might it be that some people are addicted to swearing? Could it even be that something like swearing can be an addiction?

I recall when I was in social work school there was an addictions class that was given the assignment for each student had to give up two "addictions" for two weeks. One woman chose to give up drinking and swearing. Since she wasn't truly addicted to alcohol, she found that one relatively easy. But she could not keep herself from swearing for two weeks. I began to wonder if it really is an addiction. But my friends would say, "Oh, c'mon. You must be nuts."

Swearing and Pain Relief - Can Swearing Really Ease the Hurt?

So it really struck me to read about the benefits of swearing. In an article in a positive psychology newsletter I read that swearing actually relieves pain. The researchers did an experiment. They had two sets of volunteers, both groups agreed to undergo some pressure on their finger until it became painful. One group was to stay quiet until they wanted to stop the pressure, while the other group was allowed to curse and swear. The researchers measured the amount of pressure (or pain) each group was willing to bear. The group that that cursed and swore was able to stand a lot more pain.1 The article concluded with the suggestion that maybe next time you are in pain, it would be helpful to go to your car, close the windows and yell some choice words!2

Is cursing and swearing a wonderful feel-good tool or a negative behavior that is a by-product of anger? And how can one decide if it is really a negative behavior or just something that is used so often with anger and negativity that we think of it as a negative?

Swearing as an Enjoyable Hobby?

I had a patient once that would curse all the time. She didn't just use the language. She would really go at it and curse people. She considered herself a religious person, but would regularly ask God to cause harm to people and to curse them. She went to church and would curse the other worshipers. When I asked her why she was so angry at all those people, she said that she was not always angry. It just felt good. She liked her habit. I would think to myself, “I'm glad I'm not a member of her congregation!”

I explored her history and she related that she wasn't always like this. When she first got married she would curse only the people she really hated. But now it was almost anybody. I thought it might have to do with being married, but it wasn't. She just seemed to enjoy the "hobby." After a while we concluded that she did not want to change and I could not help her. I worked with her over 20 years ago, and I can't forget her situation.

Did this woman swear and curse because it relieved pain or because of the pleasure involved? The very question is troubling. One can promote the custom of cursing and swearing for either reason. But it is almost universally agreed that swearing is negative, not healthy, and something to be avoided. How could this be understood?

Can You Get Addicted to Swearing?

It's the addictions perspective that gives an answer. Even more so, I think that there is a clue from the very research that advocated closing yourself in a car and cursing as a positive solution.

You see, screaming, cursing and swearing can relieve pain. What else relieves pain? What is the best way to relieve pain?

If a surgeon is going to cut open your abdomen, I think you would want a really good pain reliever, like a strong narcotic.

  • Narcotic medicines work. But some people use them as recreational drugs. Others get addicted after using them legitimately... It seems like cursing and swearing relieve pain in a manner similar to narcotics, and might be addictive in the same way. But is it? How can we really know?

Are there other ways of relieving pain? Sure. Think: humor and laughter.3 They also help when we are in both emotional and physical pain. Are these things also addictive?

If Swearing Might Be Addictive, Could You Get Addicted to Laughing Too?

We have two characteristics of addictions that actually define habits as addictions.

  1. First, a person can become dependent on the addictive substance. He or she feels really uncomfortable without the addiction. Take away cigarettes from the smoker, and you know what happens. Try to keep alcohol away from the active alcoholic, and all hell can break loose. There are real physical and physiological reactions, besides the unpleasant interpersonal stuff. That is the prime criterion for an addiction. That's why I wondered about swearing with my student friend.
  2. The other is tolerance. When people use an addictive substance they slowly (or sometimes not so slowly) need more and more of that substance to get the same effect. Very few people start with a pack a day of cigarettes. Somebody who just started to drink would die if they drank a bottle a day, but there are quite a few alcoholics that do just that. That is certainly true for narcotics too. It is America's fastest growing drug problem for just that reason. People start with a legitimate prescription and, after a while need more and more.

What about cursing? Does one need more and more to get relief?

  • It seems that way when we look at our friends and acquaintances. That seems like what happened with that lady who cursed people left and right.

What about humor and laughter?

  • While we really want it, and feel uncomfortable if it is lacking for a long time, I do not think one gets withdrawal symptoms. It more like, "it's been a long time since I had ice cream/saw a good movie/visited so-and-so/etc."
  • Moreover, we don't need larger and larger doses of laughter to make us feel good. Actually, we can use less and less. If you know that this is a hilarious show, you'll start laughing even before the jokes!

I think that this points to a way of deciding if a substance or habit or a behavior is positive or negative. If you need more and more of it to get the desired effect, I would consider it intrinsically unhealthy. If over the course of time you can be satisfied with less and less to get what you need, it is primarily positive. Not that the unhealthy substance or habit should never be used (you really want that narcotic when have major surgery.) On the other hand, it is not always appropriate to use a positive tool (don't make jokes when your friend just lost his mother.)

So swearing can help, but so does a Percocet. If you have no better choice, then by all means, go to your car and curse, though you're better off doing something really positive... try listening to some jokes.

About the author Ari Hahn:
I am a professional helper since 1976 and an LCSW since 1991. I have specialized in survivors of trauma. Presently I also have an on-line therapy and coaching practice where I also specialize in helping families and loved ones of ex-abused people. I also am a full professor at TCI College in NYC.
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Page last updated Jan 31, 2013

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