You might not know it but the words you find yourself using on a regular basis could be an indicator of how stressed you are. For instance, if you find yourself saying "really" or "incredibly" a lot you might want to take a break. Stress, it seems, can affect the way you speak, at least subconsciously.
Certain words can predict stress-related changes in gene expression better than self-reported feelings, it turns out. At least according to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that is.
The U.S. team of scientist seem to have found a person's choice of words is a good indicator of stress. In fact, it is a better indicator than self-reported feelings of stress, anxiety and even depression.
It seems that changes in language may track the biological effects of stress better than how we consciously feel. This is a new and fascinating approach to studying stress according to the David Cresswell. David is a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In fact, he believes that it “holds tremendous promise” for understanding how psychological adversity affects physical health.
Stress can be devastating
Adverse conditions in life like poverty, trauma or social isolation can be devastating for one's health. It can increase the risk of a variety of chronic disorders from heart disease to dementia. Various researchers have tried to pin down the biological mechanisms involved with some success.
It is known that people who suffer from prolonged periods of stress can see broad changes in gene expression within the cells of their immune system.
These tend to be genes that are involved in inflammation as well as antiviral genes. It seems that these biological changes seem to stem from the bodies evolutionary response to a threat. So believes Steve Cole, a genomicist at the University of California, Cole is also the co-author of the research paper.
Cole was also interested in whether stress biology could be triggered by an automatic assessment of threat in the brain or not. It could also occur without conscious awareness.
To find out, Cole and his colleagues teamed up with Matthias Mehl, a specialist on how stress affects language.
Participants were asked to wear an audio recorder for two days. This device would flick on and off every few minutes and record the volunteers' interactions throughout their day.
After the data collection, the researchers transcribed the audio clips and studied, in depth, the language each volunteer used.
All told, the research involved 143 adult volunteers and around 22,627 clips being recorded and analyzed. The volunteers were also required to conduct self-reporting on their well being as well as an analysis of their white blood cells. The blood cells were checked for around 50 genes that are known to be affected by stress.
Unsurprisingly, the more stressed of the participants tended to be quieter than their more relaxed peers. But it turned out that when they did speak the words they chose to use were also telling.
They were looking for 'function' words
Mehl was especially interested in what psychologists call 'function' words. The team found that participants who used 'function' words regularly tended to be those who were most stressed.
These are pronouns and adjectives like "really" or "incredibly".
“By themselves, they don’t have any meaning," Matthias Mehl told Nature. Matthias is a psychologist at the University of Arizona. "But they clarify what’s going on.” Mehl continued.
Mehl believes that the use of function words are good "emotional intensifiers. They, in effect, are a good way to assess someone's higher sense of arousal.
Mehl explains that we tend to consciously choose "meaning words" like nouns and verbs. The research team thinks that function words “are produced more automatically and they betray a bit more about what’s going on with the speaker."
Mehl and the team found that people's use of 'function' words changes when faced with a personal crisis or following a terrorist attack.
Stressed people are more self-absorbed
The research team also found that stressed volunteers were much less likely to use third person plural pronouns. The likes of "they" or "their". Mehl believes that this is because we become more self-absorbed when under stress.
They also found that those under stress tended to talk less overall. This makes sense, Mehl believes, because when under threat people will focus on themselves rather than others.
The very fact that our subconscious use of language could be used an indicator of stress is interesting. It could actually be a better indicator than self-assessment is also fascinating. Of course, this should come as no surprise. Afterall our subconscious is not under our direct control.
This would come as no surprise to Sigmund Freud.
It's still early days
Mehl was quick to tell Nature that more research is needed on this subject, of course. For instance, does stress affect our use of language or does it work the other way around? Mehl also encourages doctors to listen to the way their patients express themselves. Not to mention pay attention to what they are actually saying.
Cole suggests that assessing a patients use of language could also help to test whether interventions aimed at stress relief are actually effective.
Perhaps “you could even ditch self-report stress measures”, Cole said, and instead listen passively to how trial participants speak.
“Language reflects how people connect with their world, but who would ever have thought that gene expression would be related to language?” says James Pennebaker.
James is a psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, who has pioneered research on language and social processes (and has previously worked with Mehl).
“It’s such an exciting new way of thinking,” he adds. “I was blown away.”
Who knows, the language we use might be a useful tool for medics to determine who is stressed in the future. It might also be a useful tool for assessing those at risk of developing stress-related diseases.