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Hurtful Words Can Have
Physical Effect, Says Researcher
August 30, 1999

The childhood maxim that sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you is wrong.

In fact, hurtful words can haunt you all your life and may lead to heart disease, depression, suicide or stress, or even the aggression witnessed in the Littleton, Colo., shootings, says W. Penn Handwerker, a professor of anthropology. The words that come from people with power over your life, such as teachers and parents or peers you admire, have the most impact, he says.

Handwerker, a medical anthropologist, found that accusatory statements - especially those that start with "you" - are a factor that contribute to increasing rates of depression in the United States and often lead to serious health problems, especially for women.

His research looked at the effects of childhood "violence," including not only slapping or hitting but also demeaning or belittling, treating a person as inferior, blocking attempts to achieve and attempting to make people feel bad about themselves.

Teachers or parents who repeatedly tell children "you are stupid," or something similar, prompt a physical response in the child, says Handwerker. But saying less accusatory things such as "you disappoint me" can be even worse, because the child is confused about what standards are being imposed.

"Words and acts become chronic stressors when a child hears them regularly. Phrases such as 'you disappoint me' do their work on our bodies even more insidiously than words like 'you are stupid!' because they don't elicit a clear stress response," says Handwerker.

"Children's brains continue to grow and develop through adolescence. Words like these have effects that last a lifetime, because they change how the brain develops and thus how it works in adulthood."

The result may be slow death resulting from chronic pain, fatigue, or headaches, or from use of alcohol or drugs, or other destructive behaviors, Handwerker says.

Handwerker's latest study was published earlier this year in the Journal of Women's Health.

Karen A. Grava