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3 Lessons We Learned From Words Can Change Your Brain

✎ Written by: Dubravka Rebic ✓ Fact-checked by: Kaija Sander, Ph.D.

When you so much as hear a word, your neurons are already at work, communicating with each other in order to decode its meaning. If you receive a compliment, your body starts producing oxytocin, the hormone responsible for bonding and trust.

On the other hand, when you hear something negative or disturbing, the activity in your amygdala (the part of the brain that reacts to perceived danger and pain) increases, and your body starts releasing stress-producing hormones that can cause anxiety or make it hard to think clearly.

Other people's words directly affect your brain activity and bodily functions, and your words have that same effect on others and yourself. But can words change your brain in the long run?

In small doses, no. For example, when someone insults you or when you engage in negative self-talk, your heart might race, and your blood pressure might change, but you'll quickly recover.

However, if you're exposed to verbal aggression continually for extended periods of time, the chronic stress from negative words can negatively affect your brain and worsen your mental health.

In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, authors Andrew B. Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman explain how exactly words impact us and offer actionable advice on how to reframe your words in order to improve wellbeing.

The three lessons we learned from the book are:

1) We respond to words at a visceral, autonomic level

2) We can use language to our advantage

3) We can build skills to endure negative words from others

1. We respond to words at a visceral, autonomic level

Even though our brains have evolved over six million years, their most primitive parts still operate at a deeply unconscious level and influence our conscious behavior.

Here's why that happens:

Over time, our frontal lobes (a brain region responsible for high level tasks, such as planning and decision making) grew larger to support critical thought, reasoning, language, and social behavior.

However, they are connected with the more evolutionarily ancient structures that support survival, such as the amygdala.

Although today's common threats tend to differ from those experienced by our human ancestors, the amygdala cannot differentiate between physical and emotional threats. So that's why the activity in your amygdala might increase over a minor dispute at work even though your life is not even remotely threatened.

In fact, if you were getting an fMRI scan (images of your brain activity) while hearing words with a negative connotation, in less than a second, the release of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters would be recorded.

According to Newberg and Waldman, these neurochemicals interfere with the normal functioning of your brain, especially those that are involved with logic, reason, language processing, and communication.

And the more you stay focused on negative words and thoughts, the more the key structures that regulate your memory, feelings, and emotions are affected. As a result, you might notice a disruption in your sleep or appetite and worsening of your overall mental health.

2. We can use language to our advantage

According to Newberg and Waldman, if you intensively focus on a word like peace or love, the emotional centers in your brain will most likely calm down. So even though the outside world won't change, you'll still feel safer and more secure.

Here's how you can practice using positive language in order to feel more calm and centered in your everyday life:

  • Notice the pattern: Start paying attention to the words you use frequently and write them down or record them on your phone. For example, maybe you use words like "I have to buy a gift for my friend," or "That's expensive."

  • Reframe your words positively: Consider saying "I get to" instead of "I have to”. This simple shift changes your mindset from "I am forced to do this thing," to "Aren't I lucky to be able to do this for my friend." You can also replace words like "cheap" with "economical" or "expensive" with "premium”.

Pro tip: When reframing, try to find terms that don't contain negatives because even though words such as "inexpensive" might seem harmless, your brain focuses on the negative part of each word (expensive).

  • Switch your perspective: For any negative comment you make, have three positive things to say lined up. For example, instead of saying, "I'm sick," you can say, "I'm healing," or "I'm getting over a cold.”

  • Find an accountability partner: Ask a close friend, a family member, or your partner to pay close attention to which words you use and permit them to stop you once they notice you're speaking in the old, negative pattern. A simple reminder will allow you to catch yourself immediately and decrease the severity of your words.

It's important to note that once you try implementing these strategies, you may find yourself resisting them. The reason why this happens is that your brain perceives every change you make in your lifestyle as a stressful event.

But once you make a habit out of the behavior and repeat it continually, it will slip into your unconscious long-term memory where it will thereby be done with hardly any conscious effort. With time and consistency, you won't have to think about using positive words instead of negative ones – your brain will automatically do the work.

3. We can build skills to endure negative words from others

While choosing your words carefully might make you feel more self-aware and calm, it won’t give you the power to change someone else's negative words or behavior.

In order to practice how to carry a relaxed and non-defensive state into a dialogue with someone else, Newberg and Waldman recommend the following exercise:

  1. Think about a time in the distant past when someone you knew hurt your feelings or made you mad. Imagine that person walking up to you right now and hurting your feelings again. Use your memory to recall the feelings of anger, hurt, or pain.

  2. Keep focusing on the negative thoughts and feelings that come up and notice where in your body they affect you the most. Do they make your jaw tense up? Do you feel like making a fist or striking out, or running away? Exaggerate the feelings and hold on to them for thirty seconds, but not longer.

  3. Think about how you would normally react and notice how that makes you feel. Take a few deep breaths, relax your body, and let those thoughts and feelings float away.

  4. Ask yourself this question, “When someone says something that upsets me, what is the best way to respond?” Notice the thoughts that come to mind, then take another deep breath and relax.

  5. Again, imagine someone saying something to you that would normally make you frustrated, angry, and hurt. But instead of getting upset, imagine that you remain perfectly calm. Visualize the two of you standing there: The other person is yelling at you, but you are remaining completely relaxed. No matter what the other person says, you continue to feel happy, joyful, and serene. Continue this visualization for as long as it takes you to really feel that sense of calmness.

  6. In your mind's eye, look at the angry person in front of you. Instead of focusing on the anger, try to see what is causing the other person to feel so upset. See if you can feel their hurt and pain, and then take a very deep breath and relax.

  7. Speak out loud to this imaginary person, and see if you can find the best words to make that person feel cared for, understood, and loved. Notice how you feel, stretch a few times, and bring your attention back into the present moment.

Research has shown that the more you practice this exercise, the less interpersonal distress you'll experience. This can lead to fewer complaints, more mutual esteem, and more satisfying resolutions – both at home and work.


By changing your words, you can change the way you think and interact with others, thereby cultivating a more positive attitude and better experiences and interactions. And even though choosing your words with great care won't completely prevent negative encounters, it will help you build resilience, calm your body, and clear your mind.

So next time someone asks you, "How are you?" try not to reply, "I'm fine." Instead, say, "Amazing, thank you," and notice the difference in how you feel. That's the power of words in action!

Myndlift provides a personalized expert-guided brain training program that can help you achieve your goals towards reaching optimal mental wellbeing. Check if you’re eligible to kick start your journey with us for better brain health from here.


About the author:

Dubravka Rebic puts a lot of time and energy into researching and writing in order to help create awareness and positive change in the mental health space. From poring over scientific studies to reading entire books in order to write a single content piece, she puts in the hard work to ensure her content is of the highest quality and provides maximum value.

About the reviewer:

Kaija Sander is a cognitive neuroscientist and scientific consultant for Myndlift. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science with a specialization in Neuroscience and Mental Health from Imperial College London and a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. Her doctoral research focused on brain connectivity relating to second language learning success. She is passionate about the broader applications of science to have a positive impact on people’s lives.



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