From mood swings to being unable to fall asleep at night -- some things are clear symptoms of stress. However, it turns out stress manifests in many forms, like in the way we speak.
A recent study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United State of America found that when people are stressed, they overuse certain words, like “really,” “incredibly” and “very.” By analyzing over 22,000 voice recordings of 143 people who wore audio recorders for two days, the researchers looked at how stress might be reflected in people’s speech patterns.
Transcribing the recordings and looking out for “function words,” such as adjectives, adverbs and pronouns, the researchers found that people under stress tend to use more of these function words like “really” or “incredibly.” “By themselves, they don’t have any meaning, but they clarify what’s going on,” study author and University of Arizona psychologist Matthias Mehl told Nature. Unlike “meaning words” such as nouns and verbs, which people use more consciously, function words “are produced more automatically, and they betray a bit more about what’s going on with the speaker.” Therefore, how people use function words changes when they are facing stressful situations, like a terrorist attack, social dilemmas or personal crises.
And while people use of words like “really” and “incredibly” went up during stress, their use of third-person plural pronouns like “they” or “their” went down, which was likely because people tend to focus on themselves when tensions are high, researchers suggest.
While the clinicians examined each participant’s self-reported stress and anxiety levels, they found that studying language’s connection to 50 genes that are known to be affected by stressful situations was a more accurate way to probe the language-stress relationship. Participants whose genes showed a disposition toward stress, not only used more function words like “really” and “very,” but they also talked less overall.
“Language reflects how people connect with their world, but who would ever have thought that gene expression would be related to language?” said University of Texas at Austin psychologist James Pennebaker to Nature. “It’s such an exciting new way of thinking.”
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