Are Your Words Slowly Killing You?
Are Your Words Slowly Killing You?
Whether or not we are aware of it, we are living in some of the most stressful times in modern history. Life has become progressively faster and more demanding, especially since computers began to manage our work and home lives.
We have become a race of individuals who emulate the speed at which computers operate and find solutions. We drive faster, work longer hours, expect instant gratification; we place very high demands on our employees, colleagues, even our families. All this rapid living leads to increased stress, with our demands on ourselves often being unreasonable and arguably unnatural.
Stress has become one of the default values of modern society.
It is estimated that human beings think up to 60,000 thoughts a day, some conscious, some unconscious. What accompanies those thoughts is a degree of self-talk, words we utter to ourselves either in our minds or out loud. Those inner thoughts – the implicit ones – are mandatory. They are instructions to ourselves about actions we or others take, reactions to daily situations. They are also self-promoting or self-critical, with the latter clearly on the increase due to stress.
When it comes to the words we use, we have to be careful. Words become thoughts, which often become reality. The more we use certain words and phrases, the more they become normalised.
Phrases like “I can never…”, or “I won’t get that job…” or “Why me…?” can be extremely damaging. When such words and phrases are normalised, we began to make negative-biased decisions and thus take negative actions. Thoughts also create visualisations, which support and even underscore those negative-biased decisions and actions.
Such negative self-talk has a direct impact on our happiness, which in turn affects our families, our employment, our social circle, our relationships with friends and colleagues.
During the 1930s and 1940s, 180 young Catholic nuns were asked to write about themselves and their lives in the form of essays – mini biographies if you like, and many years later the essays have become one of the most famous psychological studies of our times (1).
The nuns lived a very limited and unusual and somewhat disciplined lifestyle compared to those who lived a ‘normal’ life – eating similar basic food, abstaining from sex, alcohol and smoking, not raising children, etc. Such abstinence created excellent conditions for the study to provide very clear and almost unbiased results. Those essays were analysed and compared to the nuns’ mortality rates. The findings were incredible:
• For every 1% increase in the number of positive sentences in their writings, there was a 1.4% decrease in mortality rate;
• The happiest nuns lived 10 years longer than the least happy nuns;
• By age 80, the most cheerful group had only lost 25% of its population while the least cheerful group had lost 60%;
• Cheerful nuns had an 80% chance of getting to age 85 while the least cheerful nuns only had a 54% chance of reaching 85;
• By age 90 the cheerful sisters survived 65% of the time while the least cheerful sisters only survived 30%; and
• 54% of the happy nuns reached 94 while only 15% of the least happy nuns reached that age.
What do the results of this study tell us? That our happiness or unhappiness is largely moulded by our thoughts, which are created by our words – our thoughts create our happiness or unhappiness and basically we are in charge of our thoughts.
It’s incredibly easy to not manage our words and thoughts and drift into such a destructive vortex of negativity, which in turn leads to ever-decreasing levels of unhappiness. Dr John-Roger stated ‘You cannot afford the luxury of a negative thought.’ (3) It takes more effort to think and speak positively.
Consistent thoughts become implicit or embedded: those damaging implicit thoughts are the ones that are crucial to manage and yet: those are the thoughts that are the most difficult to access. It is estimated that 80-90% of the mind works unconsciously (4). Therefore we have to find ways to affect and modify those implicit thoughts.
One effective way is to learn to challenge our thoughts and language: when we find we are entertaining a negative thought process, we should interrupt that by reversing the sentiment. A simple example could be “I hate my car. It has so many dents and lots of rust, people give it funny looks. I wish I could afford a new one.” That could be reversed and replaced by “I’ve had this car for such a long time, but despite its dents and rust, it has served me well and gets me to places safely; and who cares what people think about it? I’m glad I don’t want to go into debt to buy a replacement”.
Habitual use of poor language begins to chip away at our potential longevity, even from a young age. Our cognition has a direct relationship with our endocrine and nervous systems: negative thought processes can cause immuno-suppression, which can make us much more susceptible to illness, often critical.
When the body constantly activates stress responses, various hormones are released and the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This causes changes in the body such as increased heart and breathing rates, allowing us to respond to the stressor. If the stress response is maintained, there will be an impact on the immune system.
The unconscious effect on our physiology of using destructive language carries with it the real risk of a premature death, as can be seen by evidence produced by the Nuns Study. Without positively managing our thoughts, we can begin to unconsciously affect our physiology.
We really must police our language.
(3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNm4kXvDc8g (Dr John-Roger and John Morton)
(4) https://www.headheartbrain.com/resources/micro-behaviours-undoing-inclusive-culture-2/: Dr Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize winner 2000 for work on memory storage