Fighting words

By TaylorGleason

In an argument with a lover, flying emotions may make it difficult to use clear, thoughtful words.

But a stressful disagreement has been found to cause some health damage, and a study published in Health Psychology on Nov. 5 reported that the process of developing thoughtful words can act as preventative medicine against that damages.

The study, led by Jennifer Graham, director of the Pennsylvania State University Stress and Health Lab, measured the level of certain immune substances in wives and husbands after they argued. Researchers found that these substances, known to be affected by psychological stress, were at lower levels if spouses used “thinking words” during their feud.

“My research has shown that this helps you if you have made yourself clear,” Graham said. “It’s more of a meaning-making process; if you have made sense of the conflict for yourself.”

The immune substances that Graham’s study looked at are called cytokines. Cells in the immune system produce cytokines “in response to a time of illness,” according to Graham.

She said they promote healing, but chronically elevated levels of cytokines (possibly due to constant arguments) make a person at higher risk for diseases and depression.

“Both women and men showed a decrease in levels of these cytokines” when they, themselves used thinking words, which is a healthy response, Graham said.

Husbands, however, also showed a positive reaction when their wives used thoughtful words, Graham said. But wives only benefitted from their own use of thoughtful words, not that of their husbands.

Boyfriends and girlfriends are not exempt from this biological reaction to use thinking words, Graham said. The results of this research “could apply to any close, romantic relationship,” she said.

Timothy Loving, a relationship researcher at the University of Texas, was the project coordinator for this study.

“Insight type of words, such as ‘think’, ‘know’ and ‘consider,’” are some examples of words that a person can use in an argument, Loving said. “And words such as ‘because’, ‘effect’, ‘reason’ and ‘why’ show casual reasoning.”

Loving said all of the above words represent the attempt to make meaning of a feeling and to think about a subject thoroughly.

“These data suggest that people who are trying to process these things in real time, while it’s going on, may actually show benefits on a physiological level,” Loving said.

Sue Carter, a psychology professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, said the relationship between these cytokines and the whole immune system with emotions is prominent in the field of researchers.

Carter said that it’s all based on the autonomic nervous system, what she calls a “protective and adaptive system” that tells a person’s body how to react in scary or unsafe situations.

“These people [in the study] felt less safe if certain words were used. Or, more safe if other words were used, if the other person is calming their language down,” Carter said.

When interacting with others, our nervous system reads the words they use and the sentiments behind their words, according to Carter.

“We can’t understand those messages in words, we understand them in feelings,” Carter said. “The body reads the emotions [of words and body language] and tries to prepare you for what is going to happen next.”

This is how a clear mental process during a fight can prevent bad bodily reactions, according to Carter.

“It’s a little tough to say, but our data suggests that those types of folks tend to really show benefits from using these types of cognitive words,” Loving said, regarding the measured cytokine levels in the experiment. “To me, that’s a silver lining.”

Sometimes people confuse this idea of communication and they think fighting is mandatory in order to maintain a healthy brain, or that they have to resolve every disagreement perfectly. Graham said neither of those is true.

“People feel the need to resolve or to be nice. But what we’re saying is that if you are going to disagree, it’s better if you’re getting into [the conversation] and thinking about it in a deep way,” Graham said.

In light of the new research, Loving suggests that couples think thoroughly and  come to a quarrel ready to directly communicate with thoughtful words.

“How we speak is indicative of what is going on in our heads in terms of what we are thinking about, and it can have very measurable influences,” he said.