Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Self-image and self-esteem

 
Emotional language - happy or sad

How your emotional language causes or relieves stress

Imagine you are a caveperson living in a small group or tribe of 15 to 20 people. There are pests like fleas, and we need to keep our hair from getting too long or tangling. Then we have aches and pains that feel better when someone strokes us. Also, if people in our group or tribe take the time to do this and we feel good, we feel valued, we belong. If we were not included in grooming, it usually meant being sent to the edge of the group. This resulted in less food, less protection, and less attention, and so we were much less likely to survive.

Being groomed could mean the difference between life and death. Our brains release rewarding chemicals to make us want this type of touching more, like the hormone of bonding and romantic love, oxytocin, and also, endorphins and enkephalins.

Now imagine that your group or tribe is growing larger and larger. The average size of a human group is now around 150 people. Even if you live in a large city alongside millions of people you will still likely know about 150 of them, family, friends, colleagues and others. There are not enough hours in the day to physically groom everyone. We need another way to feel bonded and stroked.

It's thought that our complicated language developed as an adaptation to solve this problem. So we verbally groom (as well as using physical touch). Today, instead of the tribe, we rely on our mate, or we pay people to physically groom us, like massage therapists hairdressers, physiotherapists, and even sex workers.

But this complex language has become a double-edged sword. The words we use and the tone of voice we deliver them with can be extremely stressful. It's considered one of our most significant stressors.

Language and stress

Stress affects language, and then language affects stress

It's a cycle. If we speak to ourselves with threatening words and in a threatening tone of voice, like "You'd better get this right or else you'll lose your partner/job/place in the world." The threatening words spark our stress mechanism, whether it's someone else saying it to us, or us saying it to ourselves, and the stress mechanism causes our language to become even more threatening. What would be the point of this stressful self-talk? To make us avoid the person or thing we feel is frightful. This is the root of procrastination. If we avoid doing the thing we perceive as scary, then we won't be harmed.

Language is stressful because of:

  • The way we speak to others
  • The way we speak to ourselves (tone of voice is crucial, not harsh and critical, but calm and kind)
  • The content of our language (we use exaggerated, hyperbolic ways to describe bad events and trauma, and this catastrophising can make our stress levels shoot up)
  • Futurising; explaining hopeless and stressful futures to ourselves
  • Historicising; catastrophising about past events and lashing ourselves with guilt

Your inner language can alleviate stress too, by the tone of voice we use when we speak to ourselves as well as the words we use. Imagine encouraging your best friend. You don't speak to them in a harsh, unforgiving, critical way; you speak to them in a gentle, kind, reassuring way. So be your own best friend. Talk to yourself in the same tone of voice, with the same encouraging words that you would use with them.

Your emotional languages

Our language is sparked by emotions, but also causes emotions, that's the cycle. Here are some examples of our emotional languages.

Our fear language

Fear, the language associated with stress and anxiety. It sometimes doesn't even translate into language; there is no thought until you feel the fear and wonder why you have it, and then the language appears: "Why am I scared? I am scared because …" Sometimes it's because the frightening thing is right in front of us, like a tiger or your boss, but most often it's coming from our subconscious or our unconscious.

Our sadness language

Sadness is the language of grief and also depression. Like fear, sadness often has no accompanying thoughts until you question why you are sad (that is in the absence of an obvious trigger). The language of your answer may be in a similar sad tone "I feel so hopeless and helpless", "Nothing good ever happens to me", "I'll never feel happy again".

Our addiction/obsession language

"I can't live without them", "I must have them/it". Obsession, like addiction, seems out of our control. We are not in "our right mind", or perhaps we are not in our mind at all. This language appears mindless, and we might even realise it, but feel powerless to pull ourselves out of it. Our ability to stop ourselves from thoughts, actions or behaviours is not functioning properly. We can combat this with a strategy called 're-attribution', that is, placing the blame on our dysfunctional brain and not us, saying, "That is my brain doing that, not me".

Our anger/hate language

Anger often doesn't have thoughts or words. Like fear, it's an overwhelming reaction that has no words. We lash out with hurtful things we don't really mean. "I can't stand it one more second".

Hate says, "I hate them", "I wish they would die", "I hate it", "I hate my life/job".

Our love language

We need to speak this language more often. "I love my partner/children/home/life/job/ sport", etc. Reaffirm any that are true. "I love you", "I love myself". Do the gratitude exercise every night before sleep and remind yourself of three things you love and you're grateful for today.

Our disgusted/judgemental language

Disgust is one of the six basic emotions, along with sadness, fear, happiness, anger and surprise. We curl our nose up and lift our top lip when we smell something disgusting that upsets our stomach or that we can't eat. But it can apply to other stimuli too. How a person looks, behaves or smells, how we look, behave, or smell, in which case we are disgusted by ourselves. We not only curl up our nose, we say things either to them or ourselves. "You/I smell awful", "You're a bad person", "You have no fashion sense".

Our happiness/joy language

Another emotion we think we don't get enough of is happiness. Language in the form of self-communication can raise our happiness quotient as well as motivating us to take action to do more things that bring us feelings of happiness or joy. It doesn't hurt to hear someone say something joyful or happy. Because we are not wired to be happy, this takes effort. Put the effort in to do happy and joyful things and you'll be rewarded by more spontaneous bursts of happiness and joy.

Our guilt language

"I should be better", "I shouldn't have done this/that", "It's all my fault", "I'm a bad parent/child/boss/employee". Guilt and anger are two of the emotions often associated with grief. "How could they die and leave me?", "If only I hadn't gone for that litre of milk they'd still be here". We guilt ourselves in all sorts of ways with the things we say.

Our emotional language can spark stress, which in turn affects our ability to think and remember, and so can affect our ability to remember words and to talk. How ironic that people often describe this with the phrase "I couldn't string two words together".

What can we do?

  • Speak to yourself with kindness and compassion. Be self-encouraging, not self-critical and self-judgemental.
  • Be radically self-aware/self-observational/mindful to notice when your language is threatening, angry, self-critical, self-sabotaging, negative guilty or otherwise dysfunctional; threatening yourself with language such as "I'd be better off dead", or "If they die it will be my fault." Don't get angry with yourself for saying these things to yourself, but do decide to let it go and change your self-tone.
  • Listen to yourself and improve your communication skills in general, both with others and with yourself (here are some tips for self-talk).
  • Communicate your feelings to your support system, family, friends and work colleagues. If you feel you can't, then a counsellor or helpline could help.
  • Stop talking altogether for a while and expose yourself to the original way of grooming, touch, to increase the bonding hormone oxytocin, and the endogenous opioids beta-endorphin and enkephalins. Ask for a hug, have a relaxing massage with aromatherapy and calming music.
  • Watch our for the early warning signs that our language is becoming stressful, angry, or self-defeating and regulate our thoughts and emotions by changing our language.
  • Re-attribute; the responsibility is mostly in our unconscious brain and not in our conscious mind (we rarely have negative thoughts, emotions or behaviours deliberately). So, we can say "That's my brain wanting me to do that, and not me, so I won't do it". There's more on the voices in our head here and here.

What emotional language are you speaking to yourself today? You can change it.

If you are having problems beyond the scope of this article, as always consult a professional or call one of these help lines:

Lifeline Australia - 13 11 14
Mensline Australia - 1300 78 99 78
Beyondblue - 1300 224 636
Suicideline Victoria - 1300 651 251
Suicide Call Back Service - 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline - 1800 551 800
Griefline Community and Family Services - 1300 845 745

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