Fighting with your lover? If you use the wrong words, you could prolong the conflict, jeopardizing your own health as well as that of your partner. But use the right words thoughtfully and you not only have a better chance of ending the conflict, you can actually reduce the health hazard, according to new research.
Pennsylvania State University researchers have found a "physiological marker" showing that words can have a significant impact on a person's health. Scientists have known for at least a decade that stress can cause a rise in proteins that have been linked to cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, arthritis and some cancers.
But psychologist Jennifer Graham at Penn State reports that choosing words that reflect thoughtfulness, or rationality, or perhaps just caring, can reduce the increase in proteins, called cytokines, such as Interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor-alpha. During stress, those proteins normally go up, thus impairing the immune system.
"This is the first study in my knowledge to look at changes in these proteins in response to particular words used in conversation," Graham said in a telephone interview. "That is novel."
Graham returned to data collected while she was a post-doctoral fellow at Ohio State University for her latest analysis. In that earlier project, led by the husband and wife team of Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser and Ronald Glaser, 42 couples participated in an extensive research project into the rise of those proteins during marital conflict.
Protein Levels Rise Under Stress
The couples took part in two 24-hour sessions, at least two weeks apart, and blood was drawn before and after each session. In the first session, the couples discussed a wide range of subjects. In the second session, they were asked to focus on a subject that had been particularly contentious.
The blood tests showed a rise in cytokines during the second session.
Graham has now taken that a step further. By analyzing the data, she has shown that words can make a lot of difference in how high those proteins rise, according to her study published in the current issue of Health Psychology.
"What I wanted to say was, if you have a fight, and obviously conflict comes up all the time, is there a way to have that conversation that's more constructive than shouting and outright hostility," Graham said.
Fighting Words: Arguments Can Affect Heart Health, Cancer Risk
Graham and her colleagues searched through transcripts of the sessions for particular words "linked with cognitive processing" that would suggest the person was giving the conflict a little serious thought.
"These are words like think, because, reason, why, that suggest people are either making sense of the conflict or at least thinking about it in a deep way," she said.
The blood tests revealed people who used words that reflect thoughtfulness limited the rise in the damaging proteins, so there was added health protection for participants who choose the right words in conversing with their partner.
"Importantly," Graham noted, the person who used words that revealed he or she was thinking "on a deep level, which I call cognitive processing, attenuated the rise in cytokines every time," Graham said. So it worked for the individual using the words, but the mate did not always reap the same benefit.
If the woman used thoughtful words, it did reduce the rise in cytokines in the man, but if the man used the right words, it didn't affect the woman, she added. It's not clear why, although as many researchers have noted in the past, women are different from men.
Graham suggested that carefully expressing one's thoughts during an argument might have a lasting effect, because there is some benefit in simply stating one's case clearly.
"Those who feel they've done a good job of expressing themselves don't have to ruminate about it," she said. "They don't have to keep thinking about it."
Choose Your Words
OK, so the research shows that if you keep your cool, don't use inflammatory language, and run your comments through a bit of cognitive processing -- in other words, think about the words you use -- you can emerge from a fight with your lover better equipped to deal with some really serious health issues. But can people really do that, especially while discussing a contentious issue?
"I do think people can learn to be more effective in finding ways to really express disputes in a thoughtful way that helps the other person understand what the issues are, or expressing emotion in calm ways," Graham said.
"I've tried it," she said, when asked if she used this material during her own marital conflicts. "In my own life, I've found that it is a useful tool that does not always come naturally."