The most dangerous word in the world

by Carolyn Thomas    ♥   @HeartSisters

According to Mark Waldman and Dr.  Andrew Newberg, this word can damage both the speaker’s and the listener’s brain. In a Psychology Today article, they called it “the most dangerous word in the world.”  

What word is it?  

It’s “NO”.

Any form of negative rumination – for example, worrying about your health – can stimulate the release of destructive neurochemicals.  Waldman and Newberg explain:

    “If we were to put you into an fMRI scanner – a huge donut-shaped magnet that can take a video of the neural changes happening in your brain – and flash the word “NO” for less than one second, you’d see a sudden release of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals immediately interrupt the normal functioning of your brain, impairing logic, reason, language processing, and communication.

“In fact, just seeing a list of negative words for a few seconds will make a highly anxious or depressed person feel worse, and the more you ruminate on them, the more you can actually damage key structures that regulate your memory, feelings, and emotions. 

“You’ll disrupt your sleep, your appetite, and your ability to experience long-term happiness and satisfaction.”

These findings are distressing for those of us who are living with a chronic diagnosis like heart disease that can involve quite a bit of day-to-day serious rumination about one’s health.

Here’s what Harvard Medical School’s Stress Management Health Report suggests for folks who like to take life’s thorny issues and cultivate them until they are well-rooted deep and wide. According to Harvard researchers:

“Worrying, searching for a solution, and forecasting the future can move from pre-occupation to full-time work.”

Research also links the habit of rumination with dangerously high levels of the body’s artery-damaging stress hormones like cortisol. Australia’s Dr. Thomas Denson of the University of New South Wales found, for example:

“Self-focused rumination maintains high levels of cortisol following provocation.”

Dr. Daniel Brotman of Johns Hopkins Hospital was the author of a review paper on emotional stress and heart health published in The Lancet in 2007. He explained:

“   Anybody who has narrowly avoided a car accident knows how much emotional stress can rev up your cardiovascular system. But having very frequent or ongoing bouts of  ’fight or flight’ is not something the human body is designed to do.”

That’s where chronic stressors can become deadly threats to our hearts. Unmanaged stress, especially stress-related anger and hostility, has the power to clearly affect our health. It can cause:

  • high blood pressure
  • irregular heart rhythms
  • damage to our arteries
  • raised cholesterol levels
  • the development and progression of coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis)
  • a weakened immune system

When doctors and therapists teach patients to turn negative thoughts and worries into positive affirmations, the communication process improves, helping the patient to regain self-control and confidence, claim researchers reporting in the journal, Psychological Science.(1)

But Ohio researchers warn that there’s apparently an intrinsic problem here: the brain barely responds to our positive words and thoughts; they found that even with simple examples (such as showing research subjects pictures of flowers vs. pictures of snakes), we tend to react to the scary snakes but barely register a reaction to those nice flowers.(2)   That’s why, they suggest, we need to bulk up on those positives to outweigh the negatives.

Finally, Waldman and Newberg remind us of the findings of Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, (one of the founders of the field of Positive Psychology) and others whose work suggests that we need to generate 3-5 positive thoughts and feelings for each expression of negativity.  They add:

”  Our advice: choose your words wisely and speak them slowly. This will allow you to interrupt the brain’s propensity to be negative, and as recent research has shown, the mere repetition of positive words will turn on specific genes that lower your physical and emotional stress.”


Q: What do you make of the apparent dangers of ruminating on the negative?

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote much more about the subject of recovery and recuperation in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University Press). You can ask for this book at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price when you order).


See also:

Do you think too much? How ruminating hurts your heart

How runaway stress hurts your heart – and your brain

Three things that make you happy – and three things that won’t

 1. Kisley MA, Wood S, Burrows CL. “Looking at the sunny side of life: age-related change in an event-related potential measure of the negativity bias.” Psychol Sci. 2007 Sep;18(9):838-43.

 2. Smith NK, Cacioppo JT, Larsen JT, Chartrand TL “May I have your attention, please: electrocortical responses to positive and negative stimuli.” Neuropsychologia. 2003;41(2):171-83.

11 thoughts on “The most dangerous word in the world

  1. An excellent post! Much needed –

    After a heart attack or other cardiac event, toxic thoughts can impact a person’s recovery and increase the risk of a secondary cardiac event.


  2. Pingback: CuriositytotheMAX
  3. I do believe I must steal this post from you – well at least parts of it. You have many sparkly things which entice thieves like me. Much to my delight you leave all the jewels out in plain sight.

    P.S. That’s why cognitive-behaviour therapy is the treatment of choice now-a-days. It focuses on helping clients reframe negative thinking AND move them into positive action. Freud, I’m sure would be practicing it too if he had stuck around.


    1. Steal away, Judy-Judith – with links back here, of course. I’m not sure about Freud, who stayed busy with his Oedipus Complex theories (and experimenting with cocaine for depression!) I suspect he also favoured years of psychoanalysis, too.


  4. Sheeeesh, I sure needed this reminder. I’ve been “ruminating” (great word by the way) since my open heart surgery on all kinds of “what ifs” that are simply exhausting and crazy-making. Thanks for the reminder to just switch that off.


  5. Thank you for this posting. It validated my experience with stress & my SCAD* related heart attacks. I now find that I must keep a very close eye on my stress level & my emotions.

    *Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection


    1. Good point, Carrie. I too find that my cardiac symptoms are often far more influenced by stress than by physical exertion.


    1. It’s always perfect timing to get this kind of reminder, isn’t it? Thanks for reTweeting this article, too Allison!


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