Many times in life we become unhappy, anxious, or even depressed. Life is difficult and we become accustomed to feeling bad. Unfortunately, this sort of situation can become self-sustaining and affect our mental health over time. There are many good suggestions for feeling better no matter what the circumstances. These include getting enough exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, socializing, and simply giving yourself a break when it comes to self-criticism. Something else that is very important and too often overlooked is that you can simply smile and feel better!
Does Smiling Really Help Your Mood?
First of all, there is good evidence that by simply smiling we tend to feel better, less depressed, less angry, and less trapped by life. Why could that be? Researchers down under at the University of South Australia found that a smile, and that includes a forced or fake smile, triggers muscles in the face that in turn send signals to your brain indicating that you are happy. It turns out that by simply forcing your face into a smile position the face to brain connection is engaged. The researchers had people hold a pen between their teeth. This forced the face into “smile” mode which, in turn, caused them to alter their facial expression and ended up generating positive emotions.
Even a Forced Smile Can Trick the Brain’s Emotion Control Center
What researchers learned in this study was that muscle movements of a smile send signals to the amygdala, which is the small, central control center for emotions in the brain. In turn the amygdala releases chemicals called neurotransmitters that help create positive emotions. Other research from a doctor in New York showed that smiling caused the release of serotonin and dopamine, hormones that increase feelings of happiness (dopamine) and reduce stress (serotonin).
Other research has linked smiling to longer life and lower blood pressure. And, in a UK study in Cardiff, Wales, folks who had Botox injections that made them unable to frown were found to be happier on the average than other people and happier than they were before the injections!
How Much Does Smiling Help You Feel Better?
Forcing a smile in order to feel better seems a bit like cheating. Afterall, life has handed you a raw deal and putting a smile on your face will not help. Or will it? An unfortunate fact in life is that when we feel bad and act like we feel bad nobody wants to be around us. We end up isolating which tends to make depression, substance abuse, and even conditions like PTSD worse. Simply making yourself into a person who people do not avoid and, ideally, want to be with solves the socialization part of better mental health.
The positive emotions that are generated by even a fake smile can lead an isolated and depressed person to follow a path to mental health recovery by starting to exercise, making plans, setting goals, eating better, getting enough sleep, and avoiding addictive substances. The point is that every step along the way to better mental health, feeling better adds up and makes the next step easier.
There Is a Physical Basis in Your Brain for How You Feel
The amygdala fear center in the brain processes emotions like fear. Like muscles that are exercised, the amygdala grows bigger when a person is constantly fearful or depressed but it is used more, creates more nerve pathways, and thus processes fear and depression more forcefully. This results in the secretion of chemicals, neurotransmitters, that further reinforce the negative emotions that a person has.
The usual approach to helping a person with conditions like PTSD and depression is to talk them through their emotions and help them realize that they are reliving old trauma or living in a feedback loop of fear and sadness. By helping them escape from these traps the therapist helps them recover. The physical part of this is that the amygdala secretes fewer negative neurotransmitters and can even shrink in size as it is “exercised” less.
With this in mind any route to happiness and better mental health is fair game. For this reason anyone who feels badly for virtually any reason should consider smiling even when they feel down and then enjoy the benefits of the small degree of happiness that the action provides.