Words Matter

How Your Choice of Words Impact Others and Yourself
One of religion's primary teachings and goals is to guide people to be good humans by attaining the best character. That is why religion takes a holistic approach and emphasizes the interconnectedness of the mind and body at both the individual and societal level.
| Onur Stevens | Issue 156 (Nov - Dec 2023)

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Words Matter

In This Article

  •   Whether spoken by others or directed inwardly as self-talk, negative words can harm our sense of self-worth, contribute to anxiety and depression, and impede our overall psychological well-being.
  • Fostering positive language in our interactions can contribute to the establishment of a supportive and nurturing environment, thereby fostering stronger social connections and enhanced mental and emotional well-being.

“Do you not see how God strikes a parable of a good word: (a good word is) like a good tree its roots holding firm (in the ground) and its branches in heaven. It yields its fruit in every season due by its Lord's leave. So God strikes parables for human beings, in order that they may reflect on them and infer the necessary lessons. And the parable of a corrupt word is that of a corrupt tree uprooted from upon the earth, having no constancy.” (Ibrahim 24-26)

Daily, we communicate with others and sometimes talk to ourselves (self-talk). In these actions, we can pick words that might be interpreted negatively or positively by other parties. We might be more optimistic or pessimistic in our relationship with others and ourselves. Yet, it is critical to understand how your choice of communication style will influence not only others but also yourself. In these communications, we use words to shape our thoughts, influencing our actions and emotions. We all experience how positive words might uplift and inspire us. On the other hand, negative words might harm our emotions, psychology, and even our physical body.

In their book titled Words Can Change Your Brain, Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University, and Mark Robert Waldman, a communications expert, state that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.” Using negative words can evoke strong emotional responses. When we hear or read negative words, such as "failure," "disappointment," or "hopeless," our emotional state can quickly shift from optimism to despair. Negative language potentially causes a climate of fear, anxiety, and sadness, leading to emotional distress and decreased overall well-being [1]. Furthermore, the use of negative words also result in self-doubt and lower self-esteem, thereby hindering  personal growth, resilience, and our ability to achieve our goals.

The experimental study called “Do words hurt?” [2] showed that negative words release stress and anxiety-inducing hormones. Other research also showed that when we repeatedly hear negative words, our cognitive processes become attuned to negative thinking patterns. This negativity bias can distort our perception of reality, making us more likely to focus on the negative aspects of situations while disregarding the positive. Over time, this can lead to a pessimistic worldview, feelings of worthlessness, making it difficult to find joy, hope, and optimism in life.

Negative words also affect our mental health. Whether spoken by others or directed inwardly as self-talk, they can harm our sense of self-worth, contribute to anxiety and depression, and impede our overall psychological well-being. In the case of depression, negative words can deepen the sense of despair and contribute to a negative worldview. Continuous exposure to negative language can reinforce feelings of sadness, drain motivation, and hinder the ability to find joy or meaning in life. At this point, it is essential to highlight that these negative words might come from different sources, such as your interaction with friends, co-workers, family members, and most importantly, your exposure to social media.

Now we should talk about two important concepts: self-talk and pessimism. Self-talk, or, internal dialogue, plays an essential role in our health. The words we speak to ourselves, whether positive or negative, significantly impact our well-being. Negative self-talk can cause a toxic internal environment, leading to a vicious cycle of negative emotions and self-perception. A study found a significant association between increased levels of anxiety and negative self-talk in children [3]. Ultimately, negative words, whether spoken, heard, or thought, not only cause situational stress, but also contribute to long-term anxiety. On the other hand, pessimism causes mental and physical health problems as well as contributes to stress. Pessimism can hinder people’s ability to cope with life challenges and can strain relationships with others by causing a constant negative atmosphere.

Finally, our physical health is also affected by negative words and language. Research has shown that chronic exposure to negative language can lead to increased long-term stress levels, compromised immune function, and cardiovascular problems [4]. When we encounter negative words, our bodies react by releasing stress hormones like cortisol. Prolonged exposure to cortisol can weaken the immune system, making us more susceptible to illnesses. Furthermore, it can disrupt our sleep patterns, impair digestion, and even contribute to weight gain. The mind-body connection is a powerful phenomenon, and negative words can disrupt this delicate balance, ultimately affecting our overall health.

Insights from religion

One of religion's primary teachings and goals is to guide people to be good humans by attaining the best character. That is why religion takes a holistic approach and emphasizes the interconnectedness of the mind and body at both the individual and societal level. Abrahamic religions underline the power of the spoken word and its potential to shape reality. In the Bible, specifically in the book of Proverbs, it is written, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Proverbs 18:21). This verse underscores the profound impact of our words on our lives and those around us. Negative statements, such as harsh criticism, insults, or cursing, can potentially harm the recipient and the speaker. For instance, the teachings of Islam tell believers to avoid gossip and slander, recognizing that such behaviors not only harm the target but also affect the mental state of the speaker. Judaism also teaches the importance of "Shalom" or peace and well-being, so living in harmony with others and avoiding negative speech can contribute to peaceful societies.

In the Islamic tradition, the Qur’an and the Prophet’s tradition emphasize the significance of using positive language and caution against the harmful effects of negative words. “Tell My believing servants to say only what is best. Satan certainly seeks to sow discord among them. Satan is indeed a sworn enemy to humankind” (Qur’an, Isra 53). God encourages believers to speak in a manner that promotes harmony, compassion, and empathy. Negative words, on the other hand, foster discord, hurt, and, lead to emotional distress and strain on relationships. The following hadith also highlights the importance of using kind and gentle words in our interactions. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) exemplified the power of positive speech, emphasizing the impact of kind words on emotional well-being. He stated, “Verily, God is gentle, and He loves gentleness. He rewards for gentleness what is not granted for harshness, and He does not reward anything else like it” (Muslim 2593). He also stated, “The believer does not insult others, he does not curse others, he is not vulgar, and he is not shameless” (Tirmidhi 1977).

Negative words can disrupt the delicate balance of the human body, leading to stress, anxiety, and even physical ailments. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) emphasized the importance of guarding one's speech, stating, “Whoever believes in God and the Last Day should speak good or remain silent” (Bukhari 6136). This wisdom highlights the importance of a positive mindset, refraining from negative self-talk, and promoting uplifting language in our interactions. Finally, the Qur’an offers guidance to individuals experiencing emotional distress. It encourages seeking comfort in prayer, remembrance of God, and connecting with positive and supportive individuals: “Those who have believed and whose hearts find rest and contentment in remembrance of, and whole-hearted devotion, to God. Be aware that it is remembrance of and whole-hearted devotion to God that hearts find rest and contentment” (Rad 28). These practices and avoiding negative words can significantly improve mental well-being and foster a positive psychological state.

The remedy

Understanding the detrimental effects of negative words emphasizes the significance of cultivating a positive linguistic environment. Positive language can uplift our spirits, inspire us to achieve our goals, and foster healthier relationships. Using positive words can pave the way for a more optimistic outlook, boost self-esteem, and enhance overall well-being. Practicing positive self-talk is particularly crucial. Replacing self-criticism and negative inner dialogue with positive affirmations can transform our mindset and improve our mental health.

Fostering positive language in our interactions can contribute to the establishment of a supportive and nurturing environment, thereby fostering stronger social connections and enhanced mental and emotional well-being. It is imperative to surround ourselves with supportive individuals who uplift us and promote positive communication. By choosing our social circle wisely, we can fashion a space that nurtures our mental health and well-being.

In the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the use of negative words and pessimism is discouraged, as they are seen as counterproductive and potentially harmful to individuals and society. These traditions emphasize the power of words and encourage the use of honest, constructive, and kind language. Criticism is welcomed for improvement and growth, but pessimism is viewed as a lack of faith and hope in God's plan. Islam emphasizes cultivating positive speech, which contributes to emotional well-being, physical health, and psychological balance. We should choose our words wisely, avoid negativity, and spread peace and harmony in our interactions with others to benefit ourselves and society. To conclude, let us end with a verse from the Quran serving as a comprehensive guiding principle: “Goodness and evil can never be equal. Repel evil with what is better (or best). Then see: the one between whom and you there was enmity has become a bosom friend (Fussilat 34).

References

  • https://treehouserecovery.com/addiction-blog/the-impact-of-negative-language/
  • Richter, M., Eck, J., Straube, T., Miltner, W. H., & Weiss, T. (2010). Do words hurt? Brain activation during the processing of pain-related words. Pain, 148(2), 198-205.
  • Lodge, J., Harte, D. K., & Tripp, G. (1998). Children’s self-talk under conditions of mild anxiety. Journal of anxiety disorders, 12(2), 153-176.
  • Dhabhar, F. S. (2014). Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunologic research, 58, 193-210.

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