Smile Your Stress Away

Over the past few years, scientists have examined the many healthy aging benefits of humor and laughter. Numerous studies reveal that laughing promotes physical, emotional, intellectual and social well-being. Now, an intriguing new study from the University of Kansas suggests that laughter’s more subdued cousin, the smile, also may offer health benefits—even if you are only faking that grin!

Researcher Tara Kraft said, "Age-old adages such as 'grin and bear it' have not only suggested smiling to be an important nonverbal indicator of happiness, but also wishfully promote smiling as a panacea for life's stressful events."

To test whether there is any merit to the old sayings, Kraft and her colleague Sarah Pressman investigated the benefits of smiling as a tool for stress reduction. They tested the effect of two types of smiles: standard smiles, which only use the muscles around the mouth, and Duchenne smiles (also called genuine smiles), which engage not only the muscles around the mouth but also those of the eyes.

Study participants were instructed to complete a series of stressful tasks. For example, they were asked to trace a star with their non-dominant hand (for example, the left hand for right-handed people) by looking at a reflection of the star in a mirror. Another test asked them to submerge their hand in ice water.

Before the stressful tasks, the participants were divided into three groups. All were trained to use chopsticks to hold their faces in one of three expressions: a neutral expression, a standard smile, or a Duchenne (genuine) smile. According to the researchers, "Chopsticks were essential to the task because they forced people to smile without them being aware that they were doing so." Only half of the participants were actually instructed to smile.

The results? Immediately after the stressful tasks were completed, participants who were trained to hold a neutral expression during the test had higher heart rates than did the participants who were instructed to smile. Those with the Duchenne (genuine) smiles had the lowest heart rate—but surprisingly, even the participants who had held the chopsticks in a manner that forced them to smile experienced a decrease in heart rate! These results would support the "facial feedback" hypothesis that suggests our facial expression influences mood and the perception of discomfort.

The study, which was published by the Association for Psychological Science, shows that smiling during brief stressors can help reduce stress—even if a person doesn't feel happy. Says Pressman, "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!"

February Is American Heart Month

Learn about the Million Hearts Initiative, a national effort to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes during the next five years. The Million Hearts website offers information on stress control, cardiovascular wellness and brain health, including a set of informative videos.

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