We have clear warning signs of stress, such as trouble sleeping and inability to focus, but others aren’t quite as obvious. For example, the way you speak. The words you choose may say more about your stress levels than you realize, according to new research.
In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, psychologists analyzed individuals’ language patterns. They found that those who are more stressed overuse words such as “really” and “incredibly.”
The study authors listened to more than 22,000 voice recordings captured by 143 participants. All of the clips were randomly collected over the course of two days, when voice recorders worn by the participants switched on every few minutes. After transcribing the clips, the researchers specifically kept an eye out for “function words,” which are used to express a grammatical relationship.
“By themselves they don’t have any meaning, but they clarify what’s going on,” study author Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, told Nature. Unlike nouns and verbs, function words “are produced more automatically and they betray a bit more about what’s going on with the speaker,” the researchers note.
Previous findings by Mehl and other academics have found that people use function words differently after experiencing adverse events. Therefore, they decided to compare the recorded language to the participant’s self-reported stress and anxiety. They also looked for connections between these words and 50 genes that are known to be affected by threatening situations, such as terrorist attacks, low social status and personal crises. The findings revealed that the relationship between function words and DNA was a better predictor of stress than using self-reported measures of their emotional states.
“Language reflects how people connect with their world, but who would ever have thought that gene expression would be related to language?” James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas who has worked with Mehl, but who was not involved in this particular study, told Nature. “It’s such an exciting new way of thinking.”
Future studies should be conducted to better understand if language influences gene expression, or if gene expression influences language, the authors note in their paper.
Pennebaker—who pioneered function language research in the 1990s—found that the use of such words can give a glimpse into a person’s life.
“When we analyze people’s use of function words, we can get a sense of their emotional state and personality, and their age and social class,” Pennebaker told the Harvard Business Review.
The words can even signal when a person is lying.
“Instead of saying, ‘I didn’t take your book,’ a liar might say, ‘That’s not the kind of thing that anyone with integrity would do,’ he said. “We’ve analyzed transcripts of court testimony, and the differences in speech patterns are really clear.”