We are living in times of global stress. When stressed, it’s normal to get distressed. As I have written in earlier columns, stress is the external pressure which we perceive in our environment and distress is our subjective reaction. Some people experience distress as sadness, some as restlessness, others as lethargy, or as anxiety, distractibility, or as anger. People adjust, ideally, to their distress reactions with time, and by diverting their energy or their feelings in a way that either relieves their internal pressure or channels it into something constructive. And some people turn to venting, expressing their distress in outbursts of frustration.
There is some valuable research on the science of venting, and it is not too encouraging. Our brains are wonderful and intricately wired instruments. In simple terms, our brains are capable of cognitive processes, which are the thoughts linked to speech and language, and our brains are capable of affective or emotional processes, those which do not involve organized thought. Cognitive or language-based processes include conceptualizing, logic, reasoning, comprehension, and verbal expression. Affective processes include emotional experience, creative and artistic expression, impulse, and imagination. That is a cursory distinction between these two aspects of brain function, generally associated with the differences between the two halves or hemispheres of the brain.
When something bothers you, one way of channeling it out of yourself is to vent or to express your distress. We often tell our children, for example, “Use your words” when they tantrum. It is often true that when intense feelings or urges are converted into words and are expressed, the intensity decreases, so the feelings seem more manageable to the angry person. It sometimes works with children and adults too may be calmer once they verbally express whatever is bothering them. The challenge, though, is the means by which one verbalizes their distress. While it is almost invariably true that language is a cognitive process, and by using language to express oneself, the underlying emotions are subdued and better managed, it is also clear that there are some words that are not part of the cognitive process, and are actually embedded in the more emotional, regressed parts of our brain. Vulgar terms, obscenities, profanities, and slang words that are not elements of polite, refined speech are stored in the affective zones of the brain.
What this means is that when one vents one’s anger or frustration with obscenities, the feelings do not dissipate at all. These feelings are further ignited or stimulated by venting via foul language, so that healthier, adaptive cognitive processes such as self-control, patience, tolerance, and self-reflection remain inactive. The emotional distress actually increases in the brain, and a restless person then becomes agitated, moody, and more impulsive. Think about how you react when someone shouts an expletive or makes a profane gesture at you. It is normal to become triggered, to “see red,” and to react irrationally and faster than your rational brain would normally react. Essentially, venting with profanity increases distress. That is the neuroscience of what our Sages warned us about navlus, or nivul peh (Shabbos 33a), and about which Rabbeinu Yona writes, “Vulgar speech interferes with cognitive abilities.”
As parents and as educators, we must educate our children about polite, respectful speech. We model this for them, and this includes adults using discretion in how we vent our own frustration and anger. There is an increasing trend in English-speaking societies to utilize words and expressions in routine speech which were once considered offensive and roundly censored. This is not the Torah standard for mental and spiritual hygiene, and even from the standpoint of the secular world, vulgar venting lowers the standard of brain function and decreases rational, controlled reactions to stress by supplanting them with escalating aggressive energy. Trying to vent distress through regressed speech reinforces the distress one is attempting to reduce! When upset, “use your words” for sure, but articulate what is bothering you with language that is proper and invites discussion and brings relief. n
Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox is the director of Chai Lifeline Crisis and Trauma Services. For Israel crisis resources and support, visit chailifeline.org/israel or call 855-3-CRISIS.