Do you get hit with the end-of-daylight-saving-time blues? A smile may be your secret defense weapon
When the days get shorter and darker, many people struggle with the blues. In this "Health Fusion" column, Viv Williams explores research about how the simple act of smiling — even if you're not happy — may help to lighten your mood and reduce stress.
ROCHESTER — In the weeks leading up to the end of daylight saving time (Nov. 6 this year), media outlets produce a steady flow of articles about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). That's a good thing, because the condition can be difficult and disruptive for those who struggle with it. The National Institutes of Health website notes that SAD is a type of depression that often sets in during the darker, winter months and can last four to five months. It's nothing to mess with, so if you get hit with symptoms of SAD, seek help from a health care provider because treatment can work.
This article is not about SAD, but I wanted to mention it because awareness of the condition may help people seek and receive treatment. Instead, this column is about a simple action that emerging research shows may help you transform a dreary fall day into something a little bit more tolerable. Smiling.
Smiling is not going to cure anybody of their depression — that requires ongoing treatment. But a slew of studies suggest that putting on a happy face provides health benefits, including boosting mood, lowering blood pressure and slowing your heart rate. And this seems to hold true even when you fake it. Results of a study published in the journal Psychological Science show that the act of smiling during short, stressful events — even if you don't feel happy but your face muscles are in the shape of a smile — can help reduce the level of your body's stress response.
"The next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress," says Dr. Sarah Pressman, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine (she was at the University of Kansas at the time this study was published). "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."
Earlier this month, researchers from the University of South Australia (UniSA) published a study that backs up the idea that the act of smiling does something to make people feel better or happier. They found that smiling can trick your mind into being more positive, simply by moving your facial muscles.
"When your muscles say you're happy, you're more likely to see the world around you in a positive way," says Dr. Fernando Marmolejo-Ramos, study author and research fellow at UniSA. "In our research we found that when you forcefully practice smiling, it stimulates the amygdala — the emotional center of the brain — which releases neurotransmitters to encourage an emotionally positive state. For mental health, this has interesting implications. If we can trick the brain into perceiving stimuli as 'happy,' then we can potentially use this mechanism to help boost mental health."
After exploring the idea that smiling makes you happier, I'm definitely a believer. Not just because of the studies I read, but because of a recent smile experience that prompted this article. The other day I was on a morning walk with some friends. One of them wore a welcoming and warm smile on her face during the entire 10,000 steps. Halfway through our outing, I was so struck by her smile that I was compelled to plaster a smile on my face for the remaining time we were together. And you know what? By the time we had completed our walk, I was happier and more optimistic than normal. Coincidence? I think not.
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