Choke

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How You Hold Your Body Impacts Stress Levels

Our body signals the mind about how we should feel.

Long ago, the founder of modern-day psychology, William James, argued that the basis of emotions is the bodily experience of emotional states. James was alluding to the idea that our outward signs of emotions contribute to our internal feelings. On the surface, it might seem odd to think that the expressions we produce outwardly could impact how we feel inwardly. Most people assume that it’s the mind that controls the body, not the other way around. But it turns out that there are strong connections running from the body to the mind with some surprising consequences.

Psychologists have known for some time that when people are asked to hold a golf tee in place between their eyebrows such that they have a furrowed brow, they report being in a bad mood. They also judge stories, pictures and cartoons to be less funny than when they are asked to hold a pencil between their teeth so that their face is contorted into a smile. And, it’s not just facial expressions that send feedback to our brain about our feelings and emotions. When we sit in a slumped position, we feel less good about our accomplishments, like how we just performed on a test or a presentation we recently gave. Simply invoking a bodily posture of happy or sad, confident or weak, goes a long way to convince our brain about the emotional state we are in.

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Interestingly, new research published this month in the journal Psychological Science shows just how far our bodily influence extends. Embodying a positive attitude can affect how we react to stress. What the researchers did was have people complete two different stressful tasks—one in which people had to complete a difficult problem solving activity where they were continuously told they were failing and another in which volunteers kept their hand submerged in ice water for several minutes. While folks did these tasks, some of them were asked to hold chopsticks between their teeth such that their face was contorted into a smile.

Those who smiled reported being less stressed and recovered their normal heart rate faster after the painful experiences than those who didn’t smile during the ordeal. There may really be something to the age old adage “grin and bear it.”

But, there is a catch here. The smile technique works best if we don’t know we are doing it—if we form an unconscious smile rather than when we smile intentionally. In the latter case, our brain seems to catch on and so it doesn’t interpret our face movements as glee. But, the researchers also showed that even faking a smile is better than nothing. Indeed, regardless of whether people were aware that they were smiling or not, holding your face in a smile led to a quicker recovery of a normal heart rate after the stressful events compared to those who weren’t grinning. At some level, our brain can’t help but interpret our smiling as a sign that everything is OK.

For more on stress and emotion, check out my book Choke!

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Kraft & Pressman (2012). Grin and Bear It : The Influence of Manipulated Facial Expression on the Stress Response. Psychological Science.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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