Stress

Need a Quick Stress-Relief Technique? Try the "Inner Smile"

This simple practice can bring calm, self-compassion, and good health.

Posted Nov 10, 2020

Photo by Meg Selig
Why is this man smiling?
Source: Photo by Meg Selig

You may not think there is much to smile about during the pandemic year of 2020. Among our miseries: COVID. Political divisiveness. Fires. Hurricanes. Job loss. Mental health issues. And more.

However, there is one type of smile that is useful for anyone who needs a dose of calm, self-love, or stress relief: the “Inner Smile.” The Inner Smile is a smile to oneself (in contrast to the “Outer Smile,” a smile to others with its own superpowers) and is a technique used in various mindfulness practices, including yoga, Taoism, and Qi Gong. I have a feeling that the Buddha practiced the Inner Smile, judging by the sculptures that show a lovely half-smile on his face when meditating.

The Easy “How-To”

I discovered the Inner Smile technique when I was reading the wise and helpful book, Yoga Sparks: 108 Easy Practices for Stress Relief in a Minute or Less, by Carol Krucoff, yoga teacher and author. As someone who finds formal meditation difficult, if not impossible, I have long been looking for simple and short techniques for instant stress relief. The Inner Smile technique met all my specifications.

Here are the two-step basics:

  1. Inhale deeply and smoothly.
  2. As you exhale, turn up the corners of your mouth in a gentle smile.

That’s it! Try it a few times. You may experience a clear change in your level of relaxation in just a few breaths.

Krucoff quotes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who suggests that you coordinate your inhale and exhale with this mantra: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile.” You may find this tip especially helpful as you begin your practice, as it is a good reminder to smile.

Other ways to enhance this mini-meditation:

  • Inhale into the belly rather than the upper chest.
  • Breathe slowly, both on the inhale and on the exhale. Take your time.
  • Consciously relax your face and body on the exhale.
  • If it feels right, you can think of the Inner Smile as sending gentle healing energy to your insides.
  • Focus on the sound of your breathing, rather than on the sound of your mind.

The Where-and-When

Pretty much any place, any time that you are not in danger is a good time for the Inner Smile. I’ve done this activity at the computer, waiting for the water in the kettle to boil, even at stoplights. (Just keep your eyes open!) I’ve smiled to myself when worried, when happy, when pleased or upset with myself, and when lost in catastrophic fantasies or other unnerving scenarios. You can smile in the company of others, too. The Inner Smile is so gentle that few would even notice it.

Why It Works

Why does the Inner Smile work so well? For one, focusing on your breathing takes you away from harmful self-talk and brings you into the present moment. In addition, “controlled breathing” has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness, and boost the immune system, according to this article. While the reasons for the benefits of conscious breathing (I prefer this term to “controlled breathing”) are not completely clear, scientists speculate that deliberately slowing your breathing sends a signal to the brain that you can relax. As a result, your heart rate slows, digestion is easier, and you can give yourself permission to feel calmer.

The smile matters, too. Smiling, even a subtle smile, releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin into your brain, as psychologist Sarah Stevenson writes here. These chemicals lift your mood, easing feelings of depression or anxiety.

Other Benefits of the Inner Smile

By now many benefits of the Inner Smile may be obvious. Just to elaborate, the Inner Smile technique confers these specific benefits:

  1. It relieves stress and increases energy. Stress relief not only feels good to your mind but also benefits your body. Under stress, the body produces stress hormones such as cortisol. Chronic stress can cause chronic inflammation, which is linked to numerous illnesses. Meditation and other stress relief activities can interrupt this destructive process, freeing your energy for more worthwhile purposes.
  2. It helps you cultivate self-caring and self-love. By smiling at yourself, you deem yourself worthy of appreciation and love. As Taoist teacher Mantak Chia put it, “Smiling to yourself is like basking in love: You become your own best friend. Living with an inner smile is to live in harmony with yourself.”
  3. It lifts your mood, sparking happiness, and even joy. It seems hard to believe that a simple smile could elevate your spirits, especially if you are feeling low. But as Nhat Hanh said, “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, and sometimes a smile is the source of your joy.” This statement is similar to the psychological principle that sometimes an action can be the source of emotion, rather than the other way around.
  4. It can remind us of our values. Smiling “affirms our awareness and determination to live in peace and joy,” according to Nhat Hanh.
  5. It fosters health and longevity. An ever-growing body of research suggests that calming techniques like the Inner Smile and other similar practices—such as yoga, tai chi, and the like—are beneficial for both physical and mental health. The slow breathing, combined with smiling, reduces your heart rate and lowers your blood pressure, thus promoting better health and longer life.
  6. It fosters self-compassion. An Inner Smile can help you cultivate openness and kindness toward yourself, reminding you to “lighten up” and stop being so hard on yourself, as pointed out here. An Inner Smile can soften your critical inner voice, elevating your self-esteem, and increasing happiness. It is comforting to realize that you are “present” for yourself.

Cautions

The idea of smiling in the face of anxiety, depression, or even the normal annoyances of daily life might seem artificial or unnatural. But interestingly, Nhat Hahn says, "You need to smile to your sorrow because you are more than your sorrow." Still, if you just don't feel like putting on a happy face, don't! Most important: The Inner Smile is also not intended to take away your feelings. In the words of the WellSpring Institute here, “Please note that by smiling at your experience you are not trying to deny or diminish it; you are simply meeting what is present with friendliness.”

Also, the Inner Smile is not appropriate or helpful in situations that require a “fight-or-flight” response; that’s when you need your stress chemicals to get you up and away from danger.

Summary

Psychologists and neuroscientists have identified a cornucopia of effective stress-reduction techniques: taking a walk; spending time in nature; connecting with friends; practicing yoga; meditating; exercising; diving into a "purpose project," just to name a few. The "Inner Smile" technique is another tool to add to your stress-relief toolbox. This tiny habit only takes moments and offers huge benefits.

© Meg Selig, 2020. For permissions or to contact me, click here.

References

Conscious Breathing with a Smile. Krucoff, C. Yoga Sparks: 108 Easy Practices for Stress Relief in a Minute or Less (2013). New Harbinger Press: Oakland, CA., p. 48.

“Please note that by smiling…”  The Wellspring Institute: https://yourskillfulmeans.com/knowledgebase/having-an-inner-smile/

Selig, M. “The 9 Superpowers of Your Smile:” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/changepower/201605/the-9-superpowers-your-smile

Stevenson, S., “There’s Magic In Your Smile.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201206/there-s-magic-in-your-smile