Most signs of stress are fairly easy to recognize—especially to the chronic stressor. Not only do you clench your teeth or tense your muscles, but you also might experience weight gain and body pain. Yet there’s one symptom that even the tensest individuals might not recognize. When it comes to gauging our stress levels, we should probably be paying attention to the way we speak, too.
No, we’re not talking about a few vulgar phrases. According to a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the tendency to use certain “function words”—or adverbs such as “really,” “incredibly,” and “very”—can accurately reveal our anxiety. Watch out for the other signs you’re more stressed than you realized.
Psychologists had a hunch that people use certain words more frequently when they’re stressed. So to test that theory, they gave recording devices to 143 volunteers and tracked their conversations for two days. After transcribing over 22,000 audio clips, the researchers then compared participants’ speech habits to certain genetic expressions of stress.
Here’s what they found: While people who showed the biological symptoms of stress spoke less overall, their speech tended to include words like “really” and “incredibly” more often. Stressed people were also more likely to use the pronouns “me” and “mine” over “them” and “their”—possibly indicating that people are more inclined to focus on themselves when under duress. These words, on the other hand, will give you a longer (and happier!) life.
But why are stressed people more likely to these words, in particular? The researchers have a guess. Unlike verbs and nouns, function words mainly clarify the words around them, rather than having a separate meaning on their own. Because we often throw them in without thinking, adverbs can be a better indicator of stress as compared to nouns and verbs, which are used more deliberately.
Granted, the findings don’t reveal whether stress influences word choice or vice versa. But going forward, the researchers hope that their findings will encourage doctors to “listen beyond” what their patients say and instead, focus more on “the way it is expressed,” study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature.
Guilty as charged? The next time your stress levels begin to rise, try these stress management tips to find the calm in your life.