Sticks and stones may break our bones but words can never hurt us. But is that true? Or, if words cannot literally hurt us, can they either help or hinder us in healing ourselves?
This question was raised by a recent article in the Townsend Letter, an e-newsletter for doctors and laymen focusing on alternative approaches to health. Dr Erik Peper described the case of a woman who had damaged her eye (a corneal abrasion) some years previously. Although the eye had healed perfectly, whenever she was tired, stressed or upset the eye would itch or be painful and over the years it appeared to have ‘shrunk’. During all of that time the woman had continued to think of the eye as being damaged, her ‘bad eye’ which had never healed properly.
Dr Peper suggested that it could be her attitude to the eye that was preventing it from healing fully. Immediately after the injury she would have unconsciously tensed the muscles around her eye to protect it. However, even when the eye had healed, because she still thought of it as a ‘bad eye’ the tensing continued resulting in the symptoms of discomfort, pain and irritation that had accompanied the original injury. He asked her to change her attitude to her eye, both in her thoughts and in words. She should ‘comfort and embrace’ her eye, thank it for having served her so well over the years, use self healing imagery to ‘hug’ and ‘cherish’ it.
Although initially the patient struggled with this positive affirmation routine, she persisted, while using the exercises that Dr Peper had suggested. Within three months her eye had ceased to trouble her even when stressed and had returned to its normal size.
To quote Dr Peper in the article:
When experiencing chronic discomfort or reduced function, we commonly describe that part of our body that causes problems as broken or bad or label ourselves as disabled. Sometimes we even wish that it did not exist. In other cases, especially if there is pain or disfigurement, the person may attempt to dissociate from that body part. The language the person uses describes a graphic imagery that may impact the healing process since, language can also be seen as a post self-hypnotic suggestion.
The negative labeling, being disgusted or frustrated with that part of the body that is the cause of discomfort, often increases stress, tension, and sympathetic activity, which reduces the self-healing potential and hope. The language often reflects the person’s relationship and understanding of the problem. In many cases, the language is both the description and the prognosis—a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the description is negative and judgmental, it may interfere with the healing/treatment process. The negative language implicitly may activate the nocebo process that inhibits regeneration. On the other hand, positive affirming language may implicitly activate the placebo process that enhances healing.
Chronic pain and chronic illness
I was reminded by this of the thinking put forward by Micki Rose when talking about chronic pan and chronic illness. How frequently experienced pain, like water running through mud, wears pathways in our brains and memories. So that at the least hint of that pain or illness, we ‘normal’ into those pathways – unconsciously triggering all the stressed and tensing reactions which, as Dr Peper says, activate the nocebo process and inhibit healing. With prolonged and active effort it is, however, possible ‘think’ one’s way out of those reactions, thereby relaxing and allowing natural healing to happen.
The power of words
Following up on this article I clicked on a link in the references to a TED talk by Aimé Mullins. For those of you who haven’t heard of her she is an American athlete, actress and public speaker. She was born with a condition, fibular hemimelia, which meant that she had to have both legs amputated below the knee when she was one. By the age of two she was walking with prosthetic legs and went on to become a successful athlete, actress, model and public speaker. She has also gloried in her prosthetic legs and has no less than 12 pairs, some of which look like ‘normal’ legs, some are amazingly booted, one is made of beautifully carved oak, and another pair raises her from her natural 5 foot 8 inches to 6 foot 1 inch.
I found two elements of her TED talk fascinating. One was her glorious discovery that her prosthetic legs were not just a substitute but desirable in themselves – when a friend, meeting her in the 6 foot legs exclaimed: ‘Oh that is not fair! Why can’t we all change our height like you!’
The other was her forensic dissection of the word ‘disabled’. Thesuarus offers 36 synonyms for the word ‘disabled’ every one of which is negative and/or perjorative – impaired, incapacitated, debilitated, limited, restricted, maimed….. If that is how we think of bodies that are either born, or as a result of some event, have become different, what sort of a detrimental nocebo effect must that have on those bodies? And how might that nocebo effect impair their ability to heal or to cope with whatever challenges life may throw at them?
Linked to the power of a smile
And if words can heal and uplift, what about a smile? The positive feedback loop of smiling is well known. When our smiling muscles contract, they send a signal to our brains which stimulates the production of endorphins or ‘happy hormones’ which, in turn, transmits neuronal signals to the facial muscles to trigger more smiling.
And you do not have to be feeling ‘happy’. Because of the positive feeback loop of smiling, contracting the smiling muscles will trigger the positive endorphins in your brain however you feel. It may not get rid of your depression, sadness or even general grumpness, but it might at least improve it – and lower you blood pressure and heart rate at the same time.
And even if it does not improve your day that much, it might improve someone else’s. Seeing other people smile stimulates our mirror neurones to suppress our facial muscle control, and ‘trigger’ us to smile too. So ‘You smile, I smile’ is a scientific fact.