A new study by scientists at the University of Kansas has found that a smile on your face – especially a genuine one using both mouth and eye muscles – may help lower heart rate after stressful activities.
The new study, led by Sarah D. Pressman, Ph.D., the Beatrice Wright Assistant Professor of Psychology, and Tara Kraft, M.A., a graduate student in clinical psychology, both at the University of Kansas, will be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), according to a press release issued by the Association on July 30.
“Age old adages, such as ‘grin and bear it’ have suggested smiling to be not only an important nonverbal indicator of happiness but also wishfully promotes smiling as a panacea for life’s stressful events,” Ms. Kraft said in the release. “We wanted to examine whether these adages had scientific merit; whether smiling could have real health-relevant benefits.”
“Previous research shows that positive emotions can help during times of stress and that smiling can affect emotion; however, the work of Kraft and Pressman is the first of its kind to experimentally manipulate the types of smiles people make in order to examine the effects of smiling on stress,” the Association for Psychological Science (APS) said in its release.
The Study; Method
For the study, the researchers divided 169 college-aged men and women into three groups. One group was trained to hold chopsticks in their mouths in a way that caused the facial muscles to be in a neutral facial expression. The second group was taught to hold the chopsticks in their mouths in a way that would mimic a standard smile (involving only muscles around the mouth). The third group was taught to hold the chopsticks in their mouths in a way that engaged facial muscles and eye muscles used to create a genuine or “Duchenne smile” (one that uses muscles both in the mouth and the eyes).
Half of those holding chopsticks in ways that produced smiles were told that the facial expression was “kind of like a smile.” The rest of the subjects were told just to hold the chopsticks in the instructed position.
Then, while holding the chopsticks in their mouths in the positions instructed, the participants were asked to perform tasks designed to approximate stressful activities — such as submerging their hand in a bucket of ice water or tracing a star using their non-dominant hand by looking at a reflection of the star in a mirror. The subjects were told they would be taking part in multi-tasking activities. They did not know that the tasks were designed to simulate stressful situations.
The participant’s heart rates were recorded, along with their self-reported stress levels, during and after performing the designated tasks. Their blood pressure was also monitored during and after the tasks.
The researchers found that the participants who held the chopsticks in a smile position, particularly those who held a genuine or Duchenne smile, had lower heart rates after a recovery period following the stressful activities than those who held neutral expressions.
Those who were expressly told that they were supposed to be smiling had an even slightly lower heart rate after the stressful activities than those who held the chopsticks in a manner that forced them to smile, but were not explicitly told to smile.
Dr. Pressman, the study’s co-author, told CBS HealthPop that lower blood pressure was also observed in general, but not in every case. The blood pressure measurements showed similar results in being lower on average, but the difference was not statistically significant.
“These findings show that smiling during brief stressors can help to reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response, regardless of whether a person actually feels happy,” the Association for Psychological Science concludes in its release about the study. “The results of the study suggest that smiling may actually influence our physical state.”
“This is not going to cure you if you have chronic stress or a major life event like a tornado,” Dr. Pressman, the co-author of the study, told CBS HealthPop. “But, it’s almost impossible to be really angry or really stressed with this big smile on your face…. You can’t help but reduce that negative effect.”
“The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress,” says Dr. Pressman, “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!”
Other studies, and experts including the Mayo Clinic, also advocate laughter to relieve stress.
For a copy of the new study report, “Grin and Bear It: The Influence of Manipulated Positive Facial Expression on the Stress Response,” which is to appear in the Association of Psychological Science (APS) journal Psychological Science, APS invites you to contact Anna Mikulak at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the new study, the APS suggests contacting the authors: Tara Kraft at email@example.com or Sarah Pressman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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