Can Smiling Fight Stress?
When you’re happy, you smile.
Go to Germany. Travel to Russia. Or visit a tribe that has no ties to outside civilization. Smiling is universal. It has the same meaning everywhere, across both languages and cultures.
It’s a natural reaction when you feel amused, joyous, or happy. You do it when you have positive feelings, but can the simple act of smiling make you feel better? Can it help reduce stress even when you don’t really mean it?
Research says that it can.
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
A study from University of Kansas, published in Psychological Science, tackled this very question.
First, it’s important to know that smiles come in two broad forms. Yes, there are different kinds of smiles. You have genuine smiles – which scientists call Duchenne smiles – and fake smiles. The difference comes from the different types of muscles you use. Fakes smiles only use the muscles of your mouth, while the genuine smiles use muscles around your eyes and mouth.
The researchers rounded up 169 participants for their experiment and put them through two phases. A training phase and a testing phase.
During the training phase, all participants had to hold chopsticks in their mouth. It sounds odd, but this forced people to use facial muscles without them realizing what they were actually doing. They were split into three groups and trained to hold different expressions. A neutral expression, a fake smile, and a genuine smile.
The testing phase had the participants perform two tasks. The purpose of the tasks were not made aware to the subjects, but ultimately they were designed to be stressful. The first task was tracing a picture of a star with their non-dominant hand. The second task was submerging their hands in a bucket of ice water. All while holding the chopsticks in their mouth as was done in their training phase.
Researchers recorded heart rates and perceived stress levels during the second phase of testing.
The group that held facial expressions in the form of a smile had lower heart rates after performing the stressful events. The group with neutral expressions had no such benefits. The people with smiles also reported less negative feelings than their neutral faced counterparts.
Results showed that whether your smile is genuine or fake, it has a real effect on how you handle stress both physically and mentally.
Scientists have also found that facial expression can affect our emotions. In a surprising twist, the side effects of Botox give clues of how smiling might lessen how we experience negative feelings.
Injections of Botox, were used on a group of people before performing a test of facial expressions. Participants were asked to simply imitate or observe pictures of angry and sad people. As they performed the task, scientists recorded brain activity with an fMRI machine.
The study found that brain activity in the amygdala – a region associated with emotion – was less active when participants attempted to frown. Other areas in the brain stem that work with the amygdala were also affected less.
The results show that the physical circuits in our brain are affected, at least somewhat, by what are facial muscles are doing. If we frown, our brain circuits associated with emotion are more active. This leads researchers to believe that our brains register more emotion when frowning, and less when we don’t.
A Stressful Past
Stress can also come from dwelling on negative events or memories. Interestingly enough, smiling might also help in this regard.
Frontiers in Psychology published a study that showed evidence that smiling can affect emotions surrounding our memories.
Researchers had people read a sad story to create negative memories. Answers to their emotional state and questions about the story were recorded by the scientists.
The next day the participants were invited back and split into groups. While performing tasks some people were told to manipulate their facial expressions, while another group didn’t. One of the tasks included rereading passages of the story to reactivate their memories. Following the tasks they once again filled out questionnaires about the story and their feelings about it.
The authors found that the people who’s facial expressions were unknowingly held in a smile rated the text less negatively than those that didn’t. They also found that the accuracy with which they remembered details of the story was the same among the groups.
What does this mean? That smiling – even unconsciously – affected how people reacted emotionally to negative memories. In short, the emotions tied to the memory were seen as less negative. So when thinking about memories that might be stressful or upsetting, it may help to put on a smile. Even if you don’t mean it.
A Smile Goes a Long Way
Smiling does affect how we see and experience our emotions. Even when we’re recalling memories of the past. The smile doesn’t even have to be genuine for this change to occur.
Your day can be be full of surprises and not all of them will be good. So if you’re feeling a little anxious or stressed try smiling. It might feel a little off, perhaps even weird. But science tells us that a smile can help us get through it.
Image: Spyros Papaspyropoulos