Why an Insult can Feel Like a Verbal ‘Slap in the Face’

  • A new paper published in Frontiers in Communication suggests that hearing insults is akin to receiving a “mini slap in the face.”
  • The big message that is being reframed recently is that mental health is the same as physical health.
  • Verbal insults can lead to stress and depression, according to research.

Words can hurt. Anyone who has ever had their feelings hurt can attest to that.

And now new research finds that insulting words can have a physical effect on the body, too. A new paper published in Frontiers in Communication suggests that hearing insults are akin to receiving a verbal “mini slap in the face.”

Researchers of the study 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. The electrodes were applied to 79 female participants. In the setting of the experiment, the insults were absorbed the same way mini slaps to the face would be.

“The vast majority of people strive for a sense of community and belonging. This is driven by both a physical and psychological need for connection and survival. Therefore, people persistently scan their environment for threats to safety or belonging,” said Allison Forti, PhD, associate teaching professor in the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University, who wasn’t involved with the study. “Obvious threats include acts of physical violence but more subtle, though not necessarily more benign, can be verbal threats. Verbal threats or even minor insults can activate the human stress response alerting the mind and body to prepare for survival. When 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 who participated 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.

Study author Dr. Marijn Struiksma of Utrecht University in a statement that this study can better help researchers 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,” said study author Dr. Marijn Struiksma of Utrecht University in a statement.

Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, said the research corroborates what many people have reported anecdotally.

“Verbal insults can be so negatively impacting that we’re not really taking in all of the positive things [people can say about us],” said Gallagher. “People come to me and a lot of the time in sessions we’re talking about things that were said to them that were painful, whether it was when they were a child or in their current life. It goes to show we are sensitive people.”

Caroline Bobbie, LCSW, a psychotherapist with Sonder Health & Wellness in Raleigh, NC, said insults can “inflict real and lasting emotional pain.”

“In the research study, trigger words such as ‘idiot’ or ‘ugly’ were used. One observation I made with these trigger words were that they were insults that play on our own self-esteem and insecurities,” said Bobbie. “I often work with clients and their inner dialogue. The truth is that most people are their harshest critic. Negative feedback like this also plays into the negativity bias, which makes it more difficult for people to focus on positive feedback that would counter the negativity.”

One of the limitations to the study was that it was done in a lab setting and not in real-life. But experts think that the reactions of the participants would be far more dramatic in a real-life setting.

“These results were found in a lab setting. It begs the question, how much worse is it in the real world when people know specific ways to make you upset?” said Gallagher. “[The ones doing the insulting] are going to find something with an ounce of truth, or something you’re sensitive to.” When verbal attacks are even more personal, the reaction will feel dramatically worse.

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.

“Replicating the study with a more diverse gender population would provide additional information about possible gender differences relative to the physiological impact of verbal threats,” added Forti. “Historically, females created 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. Therefore, it makes sense that females would be attuned to verbal threats and physiologically react to them.”

How does this apply in our day-to-day lives? It’s important to take note of relationships in everyday life where insults may be at play. As much as we think we can “handle it,” the damage may be similar to physical abuse.

“Start by monitoring the people in your life — your partner, your family members, your boss. If you’re noticing that you feel really bad when you’re around this group of people, write down what is being said to you. Find out if it’s constructive feedback, or if it is something that is trying to bring you down as a person,” said Gallagher.

The big message that is being reframed recently is that mental health is the same as physical health. Verbal insults can lead to stress and depression, according to research. Stress has an impact on our physical health.

“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. Be aware, set boundaries, and if the behavior doesn’t change, you may want to get rid of that relationship,” added Gallagher.

Bobbie added, “My take away from this research study is to be mindful about how you speak to yourself and others. As social creatures living in a society we must all be prepared for negative feedback. It’s a part of life. That being said you can protect your self-esteem from this feedback by learning how to self-soothe with your own inner dialogue. Consider the words you use carefully with yourself and others since your words have a lasting impact.”

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