Swearing Can Distance People When You Need Them the Most

Swearing, an almost involuntary behavior for some, is a phenomenon that has received little attention from researchers. Studies have been conducted on the effects of swearing on pain, suggesting that swearing can actually reduce pain. But the research that exists is narrow and does not explore biological or social factors related to swearing. To fill that evidentiary void, Megan L. Robbins of the Department of Psychology at the University of Arizona, recently led a study examining the social consequences of swearing. “Based on these ideas, this study explored the degree to which swearing can have deleterious consequences for health, despite any potential for immediate (pain relieving) benefits,” said Robbins. “The current project investigated the relationship between swearing and adjustment to coping with illness.”

Robbins chose women with breast cancer (BC) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) for her study. Snippets of the women’s verbal utterances were recorded using a daily electronic recorder. Additionally, the women recorded how much emotional support and depression they experienced throughout each day. Robbins found that contrary to previous studies, swearing was not beneficial for the women in her study. “These results suggest that spontaneous swearing in daily life can in certain contexts (a) undermine psychological adjustment and (b) potentially affect emotional support in the coping process,” said Robbins. “These findings are consistent with past self-report research showing that swearing has the potential to repel social support, particularly among females, and that undermined social support can increase the risk of depression.”

The results of the study show that women dealing with a chronic illness may compromise their overall well-being when they rely on swearing as a coping mechanism. “Because swearing is a highly automatic behavior, getting patients to stop swearing might be difficult. Instead, clinicians might effectively interrupt this psycho-social process by intervening with support providers.” Robbins added, “For example, couple-focused interventions could discuss the ‘side effects’ of swearing with partner.”

Robbins, Megan L., Elizabeth S. Focella, Shelley Kasle, Ana Maria Lopez, Karen L. Weihs, and Matthias R. Mehl. “To Conclude, This Is One of the First Studies to Provide Evidence of How Swearing Is Implicated in the Coping Process. It Highlights a Potential Cost of Swearing—that It Can Undermine Psychological Adjustment, Possibly via Repelling Emotional Support.” Health Psychology 30.6 (2011): 789-92. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Meagan


    December 9th, 2011 at 4:36 AM

    I know that there are some people that this offends, but what is the big deal? I see it as just another way of expressing yourself. It’s not like I am going to break out in cuss words at church or on the playground, but if this is ,y natural way of expressing myself then what is wrong with that?

  • Vince Burns

    Vince Burns

    December 9th, 2011 at 6:02 PM

    I really don’t see how. They are just words. When you get offended by a single four-letter word then you are choosing to be offended. What’s so bad about swear words anyway? Absolutely nothing. They are utterances and nothing more.

  • P.C. Bennett

    P.C. Bennett

    December 9th, 2011 at 6:31 PM

    How shallow to turn away from a breast cancer sufferer because of their bad language! I’m aghast to read that. My father could make a sailor blush as every second word is a swear word almost, yet he has a heart of gold. He spent his whole adult life working in shipyards until retirement and that’s the way the men talked. I don’t think he even notices he does it. We became accustomed to it. You can’t expect them to change the habits of a lifetime to suit you.

  • Myra Rogers

    Myra Rogers

    December 9th, 2011 at 7:15 PM

    All I know is that if I hurt myself, a swear word is very likely to escape my lips. It’s a kneejerk reaction. I can’t imagine how much pain breast cancer sufferers are going through and if it was me or one of my family, I’d sure feel they were perfectly entitled to let some bad words fly whenever they wanted to. Whatever gets you through the day.

  • Art Phillips

    Art Phillips

    December 9th, 2011 at 8:10 PM

    We had a recent sudden death in the family and I’ve been cussing and swearing for five minutes straight at a time without repeating myself. Thankfully I don’t get many guests (or maybe they hear language foul enough to literally raise Hell) or else I wouldn’t be able to cuss at thin air.

    It makes me feel good to release that anger and I wouldn’t want to be the clinician that tried to make me stop mid-flow!

    Some ideas are plain dumb. Quit trying to run our lives.

  • Harrison G. Puckett

    Harrison G. Puckett

    December 9th, 2011 at 8:30 PM

    @Vince Burns: I agree 100%. I mean, think about it. To anyone who gets offended I’d say why do swear words bother you so much? You’ve probably grown up being told they were bad but never why. Aside from they are not in polite usage, what’s the big issue?

    Words only have the power that you give them. Remember that, folks. And if that power involves taking away some of the pain you have, then go for it!

  • T. Solomon

    T. Solomon

    December 9th, 2011 at 8:45 PM

    That’s really it, Harrison. You hit the nail on the head: some need only be taught to be offended by swearing and offended by it they are. Nobody thinks for themselves! That’s why you can go to any country, do something minor, and feel like backhanding the immature people telling you off for it because they’re being touchy.

  • Joseph Cox

    Joseph Cox

    December 9th, 2011 at 8:51 PM

    I think it’s very unfeeling to admonish a cancer sufferer for swearing. You don’t need to like it or approve of it but you’re not in their shoes so why not thank your lucky stars and shut the hell up! We all have our own coping mechanisms and while it may not be the perfect solution, if they feel it’s helping them that’s a good thing, so butt out! 

  • Lynne Tennyson

    Lynne Tennyson

    December 9th, 2011 at 9:03 PM

    @T.Solomon: Touchy? It’s not about being touchy, it’s about respect. I detest swearing. If I was a foreigner in your home, town, or country I’d be respectful of your society’s lifestyle and culture. I needn’t agree with how that culture operates to be able to respect it.

    You want to talk about immaturity? Thinking you can walk into a foreign country and trample all over their long held traditions and ways of life simply because they doesn’t match yours is very childish.

  • Bethany


    December 10th, 2011 at 9:00 AM

    When you listen to many people talk today it is kind of like most of them have not only forgotten their manners but just have forgotten how to communicate without swearing.’ This is something that is very offensive to me as I was not raised in a home where my parents cursed and it would not have been allowed with any of us kids either. Even today as an adult I have too much respect for my family aand others that I am around to treat them to language like that. There are much better and more educated ways to communicate than by always lacing your sentences with unchoice 4 letter words.

  • mandy


    December 10th, 2011 at 6:20 PM

    Swearing for me is a great release. It lets me get out what I am really feeling, and if that hurts someone else then that is their problem and not mine. I am kind of tired of having to be so PC all of the time, and the friends who really love me will know that those are just words, and not necessarily any reflection on who I am.

  • Stephen


    December 11th, 2011 at 12:20 PM

    I consider swearing to be something only weak people would do. Its not like its helping anything is it? It could offend others,and the only thing it is doing to you is exposing the fact that you are stressed or angry or upset to everyone, its just an indication of your body and mind feeling the stress.How could it be good?!

  • Vinny Eason

    Vinny Eason

    December 11th, 2011 at 5:25 PM

    @T. Solomon: Oh boy. Let’s see if I can get through to you here. Some countries eat dog meat, for example in China, Korea and the Phillipines. Would you like it if I came to your home and swooped up your pet for lunch because I happened to be from there? After all, that would be my cultural upbringing so that makes it okay if I use your nonsensical logic.

  • alistair mckinnon

    alistair mckinnon

    December 11th, 2011 at 5:30 PM

    Wow! Whatever happened to freedom of speech? I believe swearing would be covered by that too, cancer or no cancer. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Shut your ears to it, hold your tongue and let them do as they wish.

  • Granger


    December 12th, 2011 at 5:16 PM

    You kind of have to know your audience. If you know you are around a crowd that is not gonna like that kind of language then clean it up a little, be a grown up, and use the words that you know are not gonna offend them. How could that be so hard? I know that we all have slips but for the most part I think that in normal conversation most of us know what we are going to say before we say it.

  • Erin Horne

    Erin Horne

    December 12th, 2011 at 9:59 PM

    @mandy: I wouldn’t say it actually causes a release at all in my experience. You can shout and swear all you want, but are your foul words having as much of an impact as they did when you were ten? They’re not. The more you’re exposed to it the less it affects you in the end.

  • L.L.


    December 15th, 2011 at 6:04 PM

    @Erin – “The more you’re exposed to it the less it affects you in the end.” Tell that to the guy who regularly eats fatty foods and has an expanding waistline.

    In truth, it can be more effective to take your verbal anger out on another. Not that that’s the right thing to do! I don’t recommend it despite how good it can feel at the time. Lashing out at them verbally resolves little.

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