Finally a stress therapy that costs nothing: scientists found that smiling while under stress positively affects the heart. The study by a couple of psychological scientists from the University of Kansas suggests that even a ‘fake’ forced smile works. There is something about smiling that makes us feel better even when we are going through a stressful experience.
Smiling and emotions
A smile begins in our senses. The emotion travels though the brain and excites the left temporal anterior region. It then comes to the surface on our face, where it affects two muscles: the zygomatic major in the cheek, and the orbicularis oculi, around the eye socket. We smile for all sorts of reasons: embarrassment, grief, sadness, happiness etc. Many other muscles can create a ‘pretend’ smile, but the combination of zygomatic major and orbicularis oculi reflects a positive emotion. Scientists call this type of genuine smile a Duchenne smiles, after Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne, who studied human face muscles and the types of smiles they create.
Previous studies have shown that smiling affects emotion, and that positive emotions have an effect on stress. Scientists Barbara Fredrickson and Robert Levenson found that smiling during a sad event elicits positive physiological reaction. They observed 72 people watching a funeral scene and found that most people smiled at least once during the film. Those who did smile recovered their cardiovascular level after the sad movie faster than those who did not.
Stress and smiling
The new study by psychological scientists Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman of the University of Kansas looked at the different types of smiles, and how smiling affected people”s ability to recover from stressful episodes. They worked with 169 volunteers from a Midwestern university and studied two types of smiles: standard smiles, which we use to show a range of different emotions, where only the mouth shapes the smile, and genuine or Duchenne smiles, where smile is made by the muscles around the mouth and the eyes.
The researchers monitored the participants’ heart rates as they performed stressful tasks. They found that people who were asked to smile while performing tasks, especially those with genuine or Duchenne smiles, had lower heart rates after the stressful activities than the ones who did not smile. Interestingly, even people who held a fake smile, forced by a chopstick in their mouth, had lower heart rates than people who did not smile at all.
Grin and bear it
The researchers believe that their findings suggest that smiling during stressful episode may reduce their body’s stress response, such as surge of adrenaline and accelerated heart beating, even if they are really not happy about it.
The scientists do not explain how or why is smiling, without a positive emotion behind it, affecting how we react to stress, but it does not hurt to try it next time we are stuck in the traffic, or someone cuts us off while driving.