Your words can be your most powerful tool. They have the power to change your brain—literally.
This power language has over the brain means it plays a huge role in your wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. Scientific research has discovered, tested and confirmed these correlations. So, it stands to reason that being intentional with your word choice is important.
In this article, we’ll dive into the science behind negative and positive words and the effects it has on your body and mental health. We’ll also explore how you can begin to apply intention to your language choices and maximise the power of your words.
The science behind positive and negative words
Everything comes back to the brain. It’s in charge of how we analyse, understand and experience our world and everything in it. The brain’s neuroplasticity—its ability to restructure itself—is the very reason we can continue to learn and adapt for our whole lives.
So, what if we told you that the type of language you choose to engage with everyday, has the power to change these structures—for better or for worse.
The words we use both with others and for self-talk have a direct correlation with how we regulate physical and emotional stress in our brains. Too much stress, and our brain can experience an accelerated rate of deterioration. On the flip side, exercising the effects of kind words can actually promote density growth.
The more we choose to engage with a type of language, the easier it becomes for the brain to automatically adopt that language in any given situation. This is called the “science of habit” and it refers to the strengthening of the neural pathways our brain builds when we engage with something over and over again.
According to renowned psychologist, Dr. Rick Hanson, we can use this to our advantage, and “hardwire happiness” into our lives through actively choosing positive words and language structure, more often. By contrast, however, this also means we can perpetuate negative language habits, and suffer from longer term consequences.
So, what happens when we begin to restructure our brains with positively charged language versus negatively charged language?
- Strengthens frontal lobe activity in the brain. This is the section of the brain responsible for cognitive reasoning.
- Stronger cognitive reasoning allows for the effective analysis of information through breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts.
- This better understanding of information leads to more active and motivated decision making. It also promotes flexible, forward thinking.
- Inhibits the release of “stress management” neurochemicals (e.g. dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline).
- Causes us to feel more negative stress, anxiety and anger as a result of this inhibited neurochemical release.
- We experience more “cognitive distortions” or catastrophizing spirals. These manifest inside the brain and body as feelings of hopelessness and depression.
What happens to our minds and bodies when we engage in negative self-talk?
Negative self-talk can take on many different forms. Some are more subtle than others, but all have severe effects on our health.
Engaging with perfectionist language involves holding yourself to excessively high standards and overly criticising yourself when you don’t meet them. This language insinuates that mistakes are intolerable and has been found to have detrimental effects on mental health via higher levels of anxiety and depression.
- For example, you insist you “have to” go to the gym every day because if you don’t, you’re lazy and don’t deserve to go out on the weekends.
Otherwise known as self-blame, this type of negative self-talk refers to when you automatically blame yourself when something goes wrong. Excessive self-blame has been linked to an increased risk of mental health issues and chronic stress.
- For example, when you’re given constructive criticism at work, you instantly blame yourself for not being “smart enough” to have done it perfectly the first time.
This self-talk involves allowing one small negative event to dictate your anticipation for a much more significant amount of time. For example, you spill coffee on your shirt in the morning and instantly express that the entire day has “been ruined” and “will be awful”.
Some common symptoms of excessive negative self-talk include:
- Difficulty sleeping/interrupted sleep
- Higher rates of cardiovascular disease (due to stress and higher blood pressure)
- Chronic stress which leads to higher rates of anxiety and depression
- Increased cases of inflammation and viruses (weaker immune system)
- Premature ageing
Benefits of being intentional with your words
Positive self-talk can have a majorly positive impact on your quality of life. Even the language you choose to engage with when speaking to others and about others can affect your overall health.
By choosing to intentionally transform negative thoughts into positive points of action, researchers have found you have real power to:
- Lower cortisol levels in the body (and in turn, lower overall anxiety)
- Improve your immune system and reduce risk of illness
- Develop better coping skills in tough situations
- Increase your overall well being and lifespan
How you can change your language to change your perspective
1. Distance yourself from the problem
Sometimes it’s overwhelming to think of ourselves being directly within a negative or stressful situation. It can cause severe stress which we often then express through negative language.
A great way to consider an issue with more clarity and positivity is to distance yourself from the centre of the problem. How? By speaking about the problem, and your role in it from a third-person perspective.
Research has found that by using non first-person pronouns or your name when working through a personal event, you allow yourself to think and speak more positively of the event. Some research even suggests it allows you to reason more wisely, especially about personal conflicts.
2. Choosing to be helpful
Changing your inner-dialogue isn’t always a walk in the park. But, it’s an incredibly important step towards becoming more intentional with your language choices and .
To actively engage with this form of helpful self-talk, you need to be able to recognise when you’re engaging with bad language habits.
Here is where “flipping the narrative” can come into play. For example:
- Instead of saying “I can’t do this”, you can say “this is an opportunity for me to learn”.
- Instead of saying “It’s all my fault”, you can ask yourself “what’s in my power of control and have I actioned everything I can?”
- Instead of saying “everything is ruined”, you can say “that didn’t go to plan, what’s the next step?”
3. Choosing to be grateful
By giving yourself dedicated time to intentionally set goals, process emotions, and express gratitude towards the smaller details of life, the more your brain begins to form stronger neural connections in relation to positive thinking and language habits.
With time, these connections will only become more easily activated and used when faced with day-to-day hurdles or events.
Taking care of yourself and your wellbeing can be tough sometimes. That’s why the way you choose to speak to yourself through life’s hard or annoying situations is so important.
Choosing to be more intentional with your language can make a massive difference to your mental wellbeing, and by extension, your physical health too. If you’d like to learn more about taking care of your mental health, make sure you continue on to read about our top self-care tips.