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Stress Speak

By Dan Gordon '85

Published Mar 14, 2018 2:45 PM

Actions speak louder than words, but stress speaks louder than both.


Illustration by Hannah Barczyk.

Can you hear it? Too many adverbs. Not enough third-person pronouns. These verbal tics can be signs that an individual is severely stressed out. And that impacts overall health. In fact, a recent UCLA study suggests that certain language patterns are more reliable gauges of whether psychological adversity is taking a physical toll than our own sense of how stressed, anxious or depressed we are.

Knowing who is experiencing high levels of stress is important, because the condition impacts a wide range of diseases through increased inflammation and weakened immunity. This stress biology may fuel social disparities in health — witness the higher rates of heart disease, cancer and other poor health outcomes among people living in poverty or experiencing other hardships.

But when individuals are asked about their stress levels, their assessments correlate poorly with their biological activity. Many who appear to have tough lives will shrug off any suggestion of strain, while others, who seem to have it easier, report higher stress.

“People who live in adverse life circumstances will say they’re doing fine, but their bodies tell a different story,” says the study’s director, Steve Cole, a professor of medicine and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine and director of the UCLA Social Genomics Core Laboratory. “Our bodies are programmed by evolution to respond to stress at a level that our conscious minds don’t track accurately.”

To detect these nonconscious biological stress responses, Cole’s team focused on language. Previous research has shown that in the face of insecurity, people unknowingly change their language style, most notably their use of “function words” — the pronouns, articles and adverbs that connect subjects and verbs.

The UCLA researchers analyzed the speaking patterns of 143 adults who wore audio recorders for 48 hours. Each volunteer’s language was compared with the level of expression of 50 genes known to be influenced by adversity. The subjects whose gene expressions indicated they were under greater stress tended to talk less overall, but they used more adverbs, such as “really” and “incredibly.” They also used fewer third-person pronouns, such as “they” or “their.”

Cole was surprised by the extent to which speech patterns proved to be a better predictor of stress biology than questionnaires asking people about their stress levels. “This change in speech production is like a verbal version of blushing — you’re not aware of it, but it marks some kind of stress,” he says.

One day, he suggests, cell phone apps and digital assistants such as Alexa and Siri could be used to monitor language changes, taking our “stress temperature” and issuing alerts when our stress level might be endangering our health.