New research suggests that being insulted is mentally similar to receiving a physical slap on the face. The important message being reframed from this study is that mental health is the same as physical health, and that both are critical to the wellbeing and holistic development of the individual.
Anyone whose feelings have been hurt by being on the receiving end of insulting words will no doubt attest that verbal insults often result in severe mental anguish that leads to stress and depression. The new study provides scientific corroboration for what many people have reported anecdotally after experiencing verbal insults.
For their study, researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, used electroencephalography (EEG) and skin conductance recordings to compare the short-term impact of repeated verbal insults, to that of repeated positive or neutral statements on 79 people who participated in. From their responses, to the different external stimuli that were registered by the ECG and conductance tests, it was shown that the impact of verbal insults was similar to the way mini slaps to the face would be absorbed.
Psychologists, surmising on the findings from the study, said that the vast majority of people strive for a sense of community and belonging, which arises from both a physical and psychological need for connection and survival. People are persistently scanning their environment for threats to their safety or belonging from any acts of physical violence, as well as subtle, but no less benign, verbal threats. Insults and other implied threats activate the human stress response mechanism, which alerts the mind and body to prepare for survival. When this survival is tied to a sense of belonging or psychological safety, it may not take much to create a physiological response.
During the study, the women participants read a series of repeated statements that were either insults, complements, or neutral, factual statements. Half of the three sets of statements used the participant’s own name, and the other half used somebody else’s. The participants were told that the statements were being said by three different men.
What the study found was that even in a lab setting, absent of a natural interaction between humans, and with the participants knowing that the statements came from fake people, the insulting language still had an effect. The EEG showed that insults had a physical effect, especially when repeated, regardless of who the insult was directed to.
The study findings are likely to help researchers better understand social behavior.The exact way in which words can deliver their offensive, emotionally negative payload at the moment these words are being read or heard is not yet well-understood.
What is known is that verbal insults inflict real and lasting emotional pain and that it can be so negatively impacting that we do not take in all of the positive things that are often said about us. This increases the feeling of stress and anxiety that people feel and which could lead to depression and other mental disabilities.
For the research, trigger words that play on a person’s self-esteem and insecurities, such as ‘idiot’ or ‘ugly’ were used repeatedly. These words and similar negative feedback appear to play into a person’s negativity bias, which makes it more difficult for people to focus on positive feedback that would counter the negativity.
Before generalizing the study’s findings, it is important to list some of the limitations that the researchers cited about their study. One of the main shortcomings was that the study was conducted in a lab setting and not in real-life. Experts believe that the reactions of the participants would be far more dramatic in a real-life setting.
A second limitation was the lack of diversity in the study. It only included female participants, who were reacting to manufactured insults from hypothetical men.
Historically, women tend to create tight social circles for the purposes of physical and psychological survival. Being a member in the community or the social group held increased value due to a drive to survive. A threat to belonging could be catastrophic for a female, but less so for men. The researchers added that replicating their study with a more diverse gender population would provide additional information about possible gender differences relative to the physiological impact of verbal threats.
In our day-to-day lives it is important to take note of relationships where insults may be involved.Though we may think that we are capable of “handling such situations”, the fact is that it leads to mental scars similar to scars caused by physical abuse.
Psychologists recommend we start by monitoring the people in your life — your partner, your family members, your boss. If you are noticing that you feel really bad when you are around this group of people, write down what is being said to you. Find out if it is constructive feedback, or if it is something that is trying to bring you down as a person. Being aware of these dangers is the first step to setting boundaries. If the behavior of these people does not change, you probably need to think about getting rid of that relationship, rather than just feeling anxious and depressed.
When people are in a state of anxiety, they may feel more physical pain than someone who does not have anxiety. We give our physical health a lot more credit and a lot less shame than mental health. We need to be mindful about how we speak to ourselves and others, and to consider the words you use carefully since your words can have a lasting impact.