If you find yourself saying "really" and "incredibly" more than usual, it might be time to take a break because it's a sign you're stressed out. That's according to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
During the study, participants were required to wear an audio recorder for two days. This would flick on and off every few minutes, recording the volunteers' interactions throughout the day. Afterwards, the researchers transcribed the audio clips and studied the language used by each of the volunteers.
Altogether, there were 143 adult volunteers involved in the study and 22,627 clips recorded and analyzed.
The researchers compared the use of language to the individual's self-report and the expression in their white blood cells of 50 genes known to be affected by stress.
Not so surprisingly, participants who were stressed were quieter than their more chilled peers, but it also turned out their choice of words revealed a lot. The study found that people tend to use more "function words" when stressed. Function words are pronouns and adjectives, like "really" or "incredibly".
“By themselves they don’t have any meaning," Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, told Nature. "[B]ut they clarify what’s going on.”
Mehl goes on to suggest that function words are "emotional intensifiers", which expose a higher sense of arousal. We consciously choose "meaning words" (nouns and verbs), he said. Researchers think function words “are produced more automatically and they betray a bit more about what’s going on with the speaker."
The scientists also found that stressed volunteers were less likely to use third person plural pronouns ("they" or "their"). Mehl suspects that it's because we become more self-absorbed when we're under pressure and so are less likely to focus on others.
The fact that our subconscious use of language is better at predicting stress than a self-assessment suggests that stress is not something we consciously assess. Instead, it's more automatic.
As Mehl told Nature, more research is needed to work out why there is this connection: does stress affect our use of language or does it work the other way around? He does, however, encourage doctors to listen to the way their patients express themselves, as well as what it is they're actually saying.
Hopefully, language will be a new tool for medics to determine who is stressed and at risk of developing stress-related diseases.