Your brain responds to words in ways that affect your experience of the world. Taking care to use words that don’t cause harm to others can help protect them from trauma.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But is that true?

There has been a lot of research into the power of words. And the answer to that is no.

A person’s choice of language can affect not only how another person feels but how they perceive events around them.

Word use may even influence the experience of physical pain. What people know about certain words, including when they’re commonly used, also changes how people think about other words.

Positive verbal affirmations — or “good words”— can lift people up. Encouragement can improve physical performance.

Words can also cause harm. Childhood bullying, verbal abuse in domestic relationships, and even word choice by medical professionals can lead to emotional challenges.

When you’re faced with hurtful words, you can take steps to keep yourself safe. That can involve setting boundaries or seeking help and support from a mental health professional.

Brain imaging studies support the theory that words affect how people experience pain.

Using behavioral and fMRI data on 17 people who participated in the study, researchers in a 2019 study found that pain-related and negative words made the intensity of pain worse than neutral language.

In the study, the pain-related words created a stronger response in many areas of the brain, including the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

There’s also evidence to show that words affect perceptions of circumstances.

A 2016 study found that the context of words matters. People naturally import perceptions of certain words into new situations that are neutral. Researchers called this “semantic prosody,” where the precise meaning of a word comes from where it occurs in language.

In the study, an unclear medical outcome was perceived as negative when it was “caused” more often than when it was “produced.” The researchers concluded that the word “caused” is connected with something negative while “produced” is neutral.

Words can be so powerful, in fact, that they may affect how well someone heals from an injury.

A 2018 article recommended that doctors use new language to talk about well-known conditions to facilitate recovery. Among the author’s proposed replacements include using “normal age changes” instead of “chronic degenerative changes” and “needs more strength and control” instead of “instability.”

Many people may feel like words affect them on an emotional level. Someone expressing kindness may make them feel good, while negativity may bring them down.

There’s scientific evidence to back up these experiences. Specifically, researchers discovered positive words can help people perform better on exercise tests.

A 2021 study found that verbal encouragement, specifically the words “go, go, go” and “go as far as you can,” improved performance on a balance test for people experiencing chronic ankle instability.

The words didn’t improve performance for the control group of people without ankle instability.

Researchers proposed that a psychological component, such as fear, may stop people from performing at their best while experiencing an injury. But encouraging words may help them overcome those fears.

The results were similar in a 2020 study looking at the effects of a sports teacher’s encouraging words to teen players during small games. The games played with encouragement from the teacher resulted in increased physical intensity, greater enjoyment, and a more positive mood state among the players.

Words can make you feel better, but they can also cause hurt.

A 2019 study of college students found that verbal abuse from peers had real-life effects on daily life. Some people experienced a fear of being assertive and had trouble remembering appointments and obligations. Some also had physical changes and increased irritability.

There’s also evidence that psychological violence, not limited to verbal abuse, may cause negative mental health outcomes.

A 2022 review found that psychological violence was linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety in those who experienced it from intimate partners.

The strongest overall association was between psychological violence and PTSD. Emotional and verbal violence had the strongest association with depression.

It’s not easy to hear harmful words, but there are steps you can take to heal.

Words can be a form of verbal abuse in some cases. If you’re experiencing emotional or verbal abuse from a partner and are in immediate danger, call 911.

If you’re not in immediate danger, consider reaching out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 800-799-7233 or texting “START” to 88788. You can also talk with a mental health professional or a trusted friend or family member.

Harmful words can also be a form of bullying. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 5 high school students experience bullying at school, and more than 1 in 6 experience it online, aka cyberbullying.

Children who experience bullying may need special care. Kids may not feel comfortable telling an adult about the harmful words directed at them. They may want to simply ignore the bully and walk away. But this doesn’t always work.

If you suspect your child is being bullied, try to talk with them in a compassionate and nonjudgmental way.

But children aren’t the only ones who can experience bullying. A 2021 report notes that nearly one-third of adults (30%) in the United States experience bullying in the workplace.

If you’re experiencing bullying at work, consider talking with a manager, co-worker, or your human resources department for help.

You can take steps to manage harmful words, particularly when they’re said by someone close to you, such as a spouse or partner. Try giving the person space if they’re angry.

You can support them by helping them identify their triggers and encouraging them to discover ways to channel that anger. Try to prioritize your own self-care and safety by setting boundaries with the person.

If the hurtful words become abusive, it may be time to consider leaving the situation.

Words matter. Research has found that the choice of words can cause specific areas of the brain to activate and can affect a person’s subjective experience of pain.

People use word associations to perceive neutral events as positive or negative. Words can hurt, but they may also heal.

Encouragement can improve performance on exercise tests and may improve health outcomes. If you’re experiencing harmful, negative words, remember that it’s not your fault.

You’re not alone. Help is available. You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline or call 911 if you need immediate help.