Until the 1960s, people were brought up to hide their feelings (especially the bad ones) and show a brave face to the world.
Then the human growth movement introduced the idea that repressing was bad, and it was much healthier to express your feelings.
There are good things about being more emotionally honest - it opens the door to real human connection. But - maybe there was wisdom in those old traditions. Now studies are showing that simply smiling can reduce stress.... which is healthy in all sorts of ways, for your body and your mind.
A study by two psychologists at the University of Kansas looked at different types of smiling, and how this might affect a person's response to stress:
Smiling can reduce stress
The participants were instructed on how to perform an unusual task: holding chopsticks in their mouths in particular ways that prompted various facial expressions. They were divided into three groups, one that was taught how to form a neutral expression, one that learned how to form a normal smile, and one that was instructed to form a Duchenne smile (also known as a genuine smile), which involves the use of eye muscles, as well as those around the mouth.
Additionally, only half of the smilers actually heard the world “smile” during the learning phase; the others were simply taught how to hold the chopsticks in a way that produced smiles, without the expression being identified as such.
The participants were put into different stressful situations. Their heart rates were monitored, and they were asked to report their levels of stress.
The experiment’s findings were startling. As a whole, the smilers had lower heart rates while recovering from the stressful tasks than those who had assumed neutral expressions, and those with Duchenne smiles had lower heart rates yet. Even those who were smiling only due to their instructed chopstick position—without explicitly being told to smile—showed the same effect.
Since heart rate is an indicator of the body’s stress response, it seems as though the act of smiling actually reduced the participants’ overall stress level.
Nobody is quite sure how exactly facial expressions are related to a person's underlying mood, but researchers have found a definite connection. For example, studies have shown that people suffering from facial paralysis, and without the ability to smile, have been found to suffer more from depression.
You may think that people smile because they are happy, but scientific research suggests otherwise. 'Simply using the same muscles as smiling will put you in a happier mood,' explains Dr Michael Lewis, psychologist at Cardiff University. 'That’s because use of those muscles is part of how the brain evaluates mood.'
Charles Darwin was one of the first to suggest our expressions may actually intensify our feelings. This theory is known as the ‘feedback loop’ or ‘facial feedback hypothesis’. A smiling expression feeds back into how we experience mood, therefore making us feel happier or a joke seem funnier.
Do these studies show that smiling can reduce stress?
And does this help us deal with anxiety and depression?
We know that anxiety is actually an exaggerated and over-trained stress response.... so yes, anything you can do to reduce your body's stress response will help anxiety.... and depression too.
So try smiling, even when you don't feel like it. Maybe, just maybe, it will make you feel better....