In her book Unbound Tarana Burke says, “I guess that’s why I can’t stand the old children’s rhyme: sticks and stones my break my bones but words will never hurt me. Every time I hear it, I think to myself: that’s a lie. You can dodge a rock, but you can’t unhear a word. You can’t undo the intentional damage some words have on you mind, body, and spirit.”
This topic of the power of language has come up over and over again for me in the last month. It’s interesting when that happens. Like the universe is grabbing you by the shoulders and saying, “Pay attention!”
Not long after I read Tarana Burke’s words, one of my mentors assigned us an article entitled “Sticks and Stones: The Impact of Language in Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation”. This article discusses impact that the way clinicians explain and discuss test results and diagnoses with patients can have on their recovery.
For example, people who have had imaging of the spine done are often told they have “degenerative discs”. Now, according to a 2014 study of 975 participants ranging in age from 21-97 years demonstrated that the prevalence of disc degeneration over the entire spine in people under age 50 was a whopping 71% in men and 71% in women! Unsurprising, in people over age 50 the numbers were even higher: over 90% in both men and women!
Likewise, this study that focused on the cervical spine (the neck) concluded that, “No factor related to progression of degeneration of cervical spine was identified except for age.”
In other words, disc degeneration is 100% normal.
So, what if instead of telling a patient they have “degenerative discs” or “degenerative disc disease” a clinician explains to a patient there are “normal age-related disc changes” or that their “discs are perfectly normal for their age”?
Imagine, if you were said patient: How might each of these phrases affect the way you respond to the results? Which phrases would put your mind at ease? Which phrases would cause you worry? And how might each of these phrases influence the way you feel about your body?
Keep in mind that we humans have a natural tendency to pay greater attention to things we perceive as negative. Not only does this negativity bias incline us is to give more weight to negative information and experiences than to neutral or positive information and experiences we are also more likely to mentally dwell on the negative. Psychologist and author Dr. Rick Hanson says, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones”.
With this knowledge in mind, consider how you talk about yourself and your body (both to other people and to yourself). Are the words you choose disparaging, pessimistic, or hurtful? Or are they encouraging, optimistic, and hopeful?
Do you offer yourself the same patience, grace, and kindness that you extend to others? If not… Why?
And knowing what you do about the power of words and language what might shift if you did?