words matter

Words Matter! Here’s Why.

We aren’t talking about please and thank you’s (although they are important too!). We are talking about the choice of words that we use with our clients. 

Words matter because as simple as a conversation might seem, words carry meaning, and sometimes those meanings can have a critical impact on someone’s recovery. Working in a clinical realm, where we see people with chronic health conditions all the time, we at times forget about the emotional meaning that can be associated with clinical words. Scary-sounding diagnoses play into fear-based beliefs!

There are some conditions, such as chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and mental health conditions, where these internal mind-scapes can really shape the trajectory of their recovery. These emotional meanings can filter through into people’s thought processes, their understanding, their expectations and perceptions about themselves. So it’s important for us to be mindful of them, and normalise where possible!


Words influence expectations, which influence outcomes

It may feel like a subtlety in the scheme of someone’s recovery, but the words that we use have the power to change mindset and expectations – for the better or for the worst. 

Here’s an example:

  • Doctor: “Your symptoms are consistent with major depressive disorder. I’ll prescribe some antidepressants for you”. 
  • Patient interprets: “I have a chemical imbalance in my brain and I need medication to fix it”.
  • Implications: Reliance on medication, no internal locus of control, unlikely to be proactive about their health / recovery.

Another example:

  • Therapist: “Lifting with poor posture will make your back pain worse”.
  • Patient interprets: “If I lift anything heavy I’ll be bed bound for 3 days”. 
  • Implications: Fearful of lifting, avoid certain movements, lack of confidence in self. 

See what we mean? 


What if the doctor had instead said “You are experiencing symptoms of depression which are understandable and common given the major life transition that you are going through. Here is some information about XYZ that you can do to help with your own recovery…”

Or if the therapist had said “I can see that you are able to lift your 5kg backpack off the floor without pain. Let’s work on perfecting your posture while you lift and then we can focus on building up your strength for heavier lifts.”

How would that have changed how that individual felt about their condition?


words matter


Our words in action…

We can interject in the early stages of someone’s program by helping to normalise, reframe and correct some of the inaccurate perceptions that they have.  

A common example is reframing chronic pain. In most circumstances, recovery is not about becoming pain-free it’s about learning how to manage and live with their pain condition (if there were a silver bullet, it would have been discovered by now!). 

If someone is beginning rehab with the expectation of walking away pain-free, they’re going to miss the mark every time, regardless of what treatment modality they try next. Failed attempt after failed attempt only reinforces the expectation that nothing else will work. A prime example of the implications imposed by words that result in altered perceptions/emotions  – they continue living in pain. 

Reframe to ‘let’s learn some strategies to manage your condition so that you can get on with living your life’. Over time, with a well-executed program, they see that they are able to return to some of the activities that they couldn’t do before. Being able to do more while still managing their pain provides enough positive reinforcement to keep them focused on their recovery in a sustainable way. The same is true of mental health conditions and chronic fatigue. 


 Your focus determines your reality

That’s why we like to talk in terms of a client’s capacity as opposed to their limitations.

By focusing on what they can do, it takes the focus away from what they can’t do. More empowering, more encouraging, and more likely that they continue with their program even despite the expected highs and lows of recovery!

We at Specialised Health realise the importance of the bigger picture, however, we are well aware that the bigger picture is the outcome of many finer details! Words are one of those details. With consideration, they can help us help our clients focus on the right things and even change their own internal language. 

So, yes, words matter. How might your words impact the people you work with? 


Author: Yolanda van Vugt 
Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Content Creator at Specialised Health
Editor: Tessa Nielsen


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