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Smile your way through stress

Smiling can reduce the bodies stress response and provide heart health

Feeling good usually makes us smile but can smiling make us feel good? That is what two psychological scientists set out to investigate. In an upcoming study in Psychological Science, psychological scientists Tara Kraft and Dr. Sarah Pressman, PhD, of the University of Kansas investigated the possible benefits of smiling by looking at how different kinds of smiling, and the awareness of smiling, affects a person’s ability to recover from episodes of stress.

View slideshow: Ways to de-stress

Smiles are generally divided into two categories; standard smiles that use the muscles around the mouth or Duchenne smiles (genuine) which engage the muscles surrounding both the mouth and the eyes. Past research has demonstrated that positive emotions during stress and that smiling can affect emotions. The work of Kraft and Pressman is the first of its kind to experimentally manipulate the type of smiles people make in order to examine the effects of smiling on stress.

The study consisted of 169 participants recruited from a Midwestern university. The study had two phases; training and testing. During the training phase participants had been divided into three groups with each group trained to hold a different facial expression. Participants were told to hold chopsticks in their mouths in a way that engaged facial muscles used to create a neutral facial expression, a standard smile or Duchenne smile. The chopsticks were vital for the task because they forced people to smile without being aware they were smiling. Only half of the group members were instructed to smile.

In the testing phase, participants were asked to work on multitasking activities. Participants were unaware that the activities were designed to be stressful. The first stress inducing activity had participants tracing a star with their non-dominant hand by looking at the stars reflection in a mirror. For the second stress inducing activity participants were required to plunge their hand in ice water.

During both of the stress inducing activities participants had held chopsticks in their mouth as they had been taught in training. Researchers measured participant’s heart rates and self-reported stress levels throughout the testing phase.

The study’s results suggested that smiling may actually influence our physical state; in comparison to participants who held neutral facial expressions, participants that were told smile and in particular those participants with Duchenne smiles, had lower heart rates after recovery from stressful activities. Those participants who held chopsticks in their mouth in a way that forced them to smile, but were not explicitly told to smile as part of the training had also reported a small decrease in positive effect in comparison to those who held neutral facial expressions.

The findings demonstrate that smiling during brief stressors can help to lower the intensity of the body’s stress response, regardless whether a person actually feels happy.

Dr. Pressman states the next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress, you might try to hold your face in a smile for a moment. Not only will it help you 'grin and bear it' psychologically, but it might actually help your heart health as well!"