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Smiling Could Help Reduce Stress

Update Date: Jul 31, 2012 09:44 AM EDT

They say in a sad situation, you sometimes smile to keep yourself from crying. But, could smiling actually help you recover from stressful situations? A new study thinks so.

Psychological scientists, Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman,  from the University of Kansas studied the potential benefits of smiling by looking at how different types of smiling, and the awareness of smiling, affects individuals' ability to recover from episodes of stress. Previous research shows that positive emotions can help during times of stress and that smiling can affect emotion. This is the first study of its kind to experimentally manipulate the types of smiles people make in order to examine the effects of smiling on stress.

The researchers concluded that smiling may actually influence our physical state and 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 study will be published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The researchers enrolled 169 participants to take part in a two phase training and testing activity. During the training phase, participants were trained to hold a different facial expression. They were then instructed to hold chopsticks in their mouths in such a way that they engaged facial muscles used to create a neutral facial expression, a standard smile, or a genuine smile. Chopsticks were used because they forced people to smile without them being aware that they were doing so. Only half of the group members were actually instructed to smile.

At the end of the training phase, researchers noted that compared to participants who held neutral facial expressions, participants who were instructed to smile, and in particular those with genuine smiles, had lower heart rate levels after recovery from the stressful activities. The participants who held chopsticks in a manner that forced them to smile, but were not explicitly told to smile as part of the training, also reported a smaller decrease in positive affect compared to those who held neutral facial expressions.

Smiles are generally divided into two categories: standard smiles, which use the muscles surrounding the mouth, and genuine or Duchenne smiles, which engage the muscles surrounding both the mouth and eyes.

In the testing phase, participants were asked to work on multitasking activities designed to be stressful. The first stress-inducing activity required the participants to trace a star with their non-dominant hand by looking at a reflection of the star in a mirror. The second stress-inducing activity required participants to submerge a hand in ice water.

During both of the stressful tasks, participants held the chopsticks in their mouth just as they were taught in training phase. The researchers measured participants' heart rates and self-reported stress levels throughout the testing phase.

"The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress," says 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!"

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