Huffpost Religion
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Judith Acosta Headshot

Words of Grace: Christianity and Verbal First Aid

Posted: Updated:
Print

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart

be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.

-Psalm 19:14

For God did not create the heavens and the earth with his hands or in a painting or by angelic hire. He created the very fabric of all existence with his words. He spoke: Let there be light. Let there day. Let there be night. Let there be a division between the two.

He spoke. And with His Words He created.

And by His utterance and the song that is Heaven and Holy Spirit, they continue to create, and we continue to exist.

It is the one way in which we may be co-creators with God -- we pray, we praise, and we speak.
Words also form the basis for the ways in which we may be cut off forever: by taking His name in vain and by gossiping or committing slander. The first one is plain in scripture:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor

-Exodus 20:16

Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and
judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law.

-James 4:11

But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every
careless word they have spoken.

-Matthew 12:36

So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue--a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.

-James 3:5-10

The sanctions against gossip are severe, and in Judaism it is likened to murder:

The hypocrite with his mouth destroys his neighbor.

-Proverbs 11:9.

What Does This Mean in Modern Terms?

If we were looking at all these biblical warnings as a scientist, we'd have to ask, "Why?" We would have to wonder, what is this stuff made of, this stuff that we are made of that words are taken so seriously?

I have not been the first one to ask.

Others have asked and studied, and what they have come up with gives credence to the old expression: the scientists climbed the mountain and found the mystics waiting there.

What they found was that from our brains to our buttocks, we are made of the same stuff that everything else is made of -- hyperstring. The closest anyone has come to understanding what that means is that we are an amazing intricate complex of vibrations, each one tuned in a particular way with a particular intent, each one somehow interacting with all the others to form atoms, molecules, cells, tissue and structure. And together they produce form, thought and behavior. All from vibrations. We are song.

The Philosophy of Verbal First Aid

There are two things upon which Verbal First Aid may properly rest for those of Christian and Jewish faith.

  1. That the Bible is correct in its emphasis on the importance of what we say. Words matter. They can kill and they can heal.
  2. There are ways you can use them so they are as healing as possible when you need them most.

People of faith have always known and understood how mind and spirit and will impact our behavior and our biology.

People of science focus on how the brain and biochemistry impact our emotions, our thoughts and our behaviors.

Verbal First Aid is the corpus collosum bridging those two worlds, making our wills and spirits line up with our behaviors and our words.

It is a simple protocol for therapeutic communication, and the way it works is essentially very simple. An example:

Two people meet for the first time in a department store while they are on line at a cashier. But within 30 seconds -- just by talking -- they could make each other laugh, make each other cry, or reach for their blood pressure medication. So, it's hardly a jump at all to say that within 30 seconds, they could help one another to lower their blood pressure, stop their bleeding, or significantly reduce their pain -- just with words. Words can harm. Words can heal.

Mind Over Matter Has Become Words Over Genetics

According to numerous recent studies cited in the book, Verbal First Aid (Penguin, 2010), our minds not only affect how we "feel" (as in whether we have a nice day or not) but how we develop and which genes get expressed or are left dormant. This is of particular importance when we are reaching out to children who are looking to us as adults for guidance on every single new thing they come across in the world -- whether that's how to deal with a scraped knee or how to manage a wounded heart.

Words not only affect brain function but structure. Scientists have found changes in the limbic system (emotional), prefrontal cortex (labeling), the brain stem, and the frontal lobes (problem solving and executive function) that can be attributed to words and relationships.

As the work of Bruce Lipton and others has demonstrated, words and environments affect genetic expression. A study reported by Gary Sibcy was done with monkeys and gene expression. It turns out that monkeys also have the gene for alcoholism. All the monkeys in the larger group had the gene. They were randomly divided into two groups. One group was raised by its birth mother and the other group raised by teenage monkeys.

Which group became addicted?

In the group raised by proper adult mothers, the genes for alcoholism lay dormant. In the experimental group, they became addicted.

Environment affects our DNA.

And, as we all know, the earlier the enrichment (hence the reason for the second book), the better.

In studies of young mothers, those who resented their pregnancies created stress hormones in themselves and their babies in-utero. Those babies developed more slowly and were more anxious.

"If You Have Nothing Nice too Say...": How I Came to Verbal First Aid and the Realization That Words Were So Important

A while back I was meeting with an administrator at a local hospital, and a paramedic came in while we were talking about VFA. He said that his team was called just that week to the home of a chronic hypoglycemic who had made numerous inappropriate calls to EMS in the past. This time he was out cold. The wife was ranting and raving about his attitude and behavior.

Assuming that being unconscious meant inaccessible, the paramedics, tired and cranky, joined in, firmly complaining about him being a "pain." Just then, the patient wakes up screaming: "I'm going to kill you. I heard that."

Words can turn a situation around in milliseconds, moving us from a stressed, frightened state in which the sympathetic system is dominant to a safer, calmer state in which the parasympathetic system takes charge. As that paramedic found out, even words uttered in jest or when a patient is unconscious can make a serious difference in the way a medical situation is moved forward.

For me, Verbal First Aid became crucial in my work as a psychotherapist because I got scared. I was in an extensive training program in neurolinguistics and family therapy. One of the things we learned to do was a Bandler and Grinder technique called eye-accessing cues. We would alter the syntax and mode of speech so that certain internal processes would be activated.

This is all before the show Lie to Me, but by watching the patient's eyes, we would know how they were processing information: visually (up to their left or up to right), auditorily (to left or right center) or kinesthetically (down to right).

And I remember one patient in particularly whose eyes had gone up to his left (visual-remembered) then up to his right (Visual-constructed, i.e., imagined) when I changed the tense of a verb. It terrified me.

What else was I doing with words that I didn't understand? I signed up for more training the next day and until I had a handle on it, I sat with my hand over my mouth.

There are a few principles in Verbal First Aid, in any therapeutic communication. Distilled to their essence, they are:

  1. Rapport -- the critical importance of our relationships with others, particularly when they are in a state of shock, pain, illness, grief, or fear.
  2. The Healing Zone -- these states all produce in us (in varying degrees) what is clinically called dissociation. When we dissociate -- even a little -- we are more suggestible to everything that is being said around us. That is simply the way human beings are. It is not something we can easily alter. It has been shown clinically and empirically that what is said at those times is often embedded into our minds. Particularly if what we hear is being said by someone we perceive as an authority.

    There are two ways to use these states, which is why we prefer to call them healing zones. We prefer to see the opportunities available to us in them. We can use our words to heal or to harm. We are speaking anyway. Let us then be careful and aware of the impact of our words and utilize them to facilitate the physiological responses that will help calm, comfort and save lives.

  3. Suggestion -- Every conversation we have is based on the power of suggestion. I go on a trip and I tell you about it so you can be there with me. If I've traveled to Argentina and taken a horseback ride across the Pampas, I'd show you pictures and talk about the sound of the hooves as they pounded into the dirt of the open plains, the smell of asado as we approached camp, the taste of home grown wine and the singing of Gauchos until we fell comfortably asleep in our hammocks.

This is the purpose of conversation -- to bring the listener along with us on a journey of sensation, ideas, inspiration. Words -- whenever and wherever they are used -- are always utilizing the power of suggestion and are always speaking to us physically. That is part of how God created us. We can use this for good or ill.

How Words Impact Physiology

Simply, words generate images, which generate emotions, which create a cascade of chemistry either from the sympathetic nervous system (stress response) or parasympathetic (rest, "all is well" response).

We all know it in our own lives: If we're embarrassed, pointed out and laughed at, our blood floods the capillaries in our cheeks, our heart rates accelerate, gastric juices increase, adrenalin shoots out.

If we have a frightening dream -- which is, after all, just mental images -- we may wake up sweaty, heart palpitating, our muscles tired and twitchy. In fact, a special paralyzing hormone is needed during sleep to keep us from responding to dreams as though they were real.

In tests done with movie reviewers, they found that watching chase scenes produced muscle and skin responses that corresponded to actual driving. In the 1920s American physician and physiologist Edmund Jacobson had patients imagine themselves running or swimming. He tracked the associated muscles and found that they responded subtly to the thought alone.

Three Ethical Presuppositions in Verbal First Aid

  1. You're using words.
  2. Words have physiological impacts -- they can harm or heal.
  3. It behooves us to use words to heal.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things.

-Phillipians 4:8

If what we hear, we think, and if what we think, we see in our minds, and if what we see is what we feel, then the Bible is scientifically sound. We must direct thought -- and speech -- to that which heals.