Words rewire our brains – for better or worse

“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.” ~ Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Waldman

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a harsh, angry word, you are well acquainted with the racing heart and rise in blood pressure due to the fight-or-flight stress response. On the opposite end of the spectrum, kind, loving and gentle words have a calming, spacious effect. Both scenario’s tend to be familiar ground in our day-to-day interactions. What we may not realize, however, is how words restructure the physical composition of our brains in an ongoing process. And it’s not just spoken words — the same is true for those that are in written form or thoughts of particular words. As it turns out, words hold incredible power — and can determine our level of happiness, health and success in both business and relationships.

Researchers have discovered the most dangerous word in the world

For anyone who has children, there’s a good chance you fall into the “NO” routine — meaning you habitually tell your child “NO” as if it were some kind of knee-jerk reaction. As parents, we seem to dole the word out like candy without a second thought, which is a big mistake according to the latest research in psychology.

“If I were to put you into a 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,” write Newberg and Waldman, authors of Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy.

When you speak the word “NO” — it’s not just your brain that’s affected, the listener will also experience increased anxiety and irritability, which ultimately undermines cooperation and trust. In fact, any hostile language can cause problems for both the speaker and recipient. “Angry words send alarm messages through the brain, and they partially shut down the logic-and-reasoning centers located in the frontal lobes,” note Newberg and Waldman. That’s right, a single word is powerful enough to impact the expression of genes that are responsible for physical and emotional stress. And complaining is just as bad. “People don’t break wind in elevators more than they have to. Venting anger is…similar to emotional farting in a closed area. It sounds like a good idea, but it’s dead wrong,” psychologist Jeffrey Lohr wryly observes.

Besides curbing our complaints and avoiding negative words in thought and speech — and possibly rethinking the use of “NO” altogether — how can we further transform our reality for the better through the use of language?

The power of positive words

If negative words are a disaster for our mind, health and relationships, the opposite is also true of optimistic language. When we hold a positive word in our mind the frontal lobe is stimulated. This is the region of the brain responsible for higher mental processes like thinking, decision making and planning — it also includes specific language centers that are linked directly to the motor cortex that moves you into action. On top of that, the longer you focus on positive words, the more other areas of the brain are influenced. You begin to change the perception of yourself and others. And you build resiliency to life’s trials and tribulations.

As you begin to see yourself in a positive light, it will create a bias toward seeing the good in others. In contrast, negative words create a poor self-image which cultivates suspicion and doubt. “Over time the structure of your thalamus will also change in response to your conscious words, thoughts, and feelings, and we believe that the thalamic changes affect the way in which you perceive reality,” said the authors.