Is it Possible to Smile Your Way out of Stress?

Studies show that smiling reduces stress, lowers the heart rate, and makes it easier to deal with challenges. Find out how healthy teeth can improve your smile.

Is it Possible to Smile your Way out of Stress?

Image by Capture the Uncapturable on Flickr.

At one point or another, we have all been advised to smile. We might have had a particularly bad day and caught the attention of a concerned stranger. It could be a family member or a friend who makes the suggestion. Sometimes, it will be that guy you hate from accounts or that annoying woman on the train. Either way, the recommendation usually takes one of two forms. ‘Smile, it might never happen’ or ‘Cheer up, give us a smile.’  

And, while many of us probably grimace on the inside, politeness encourages us to play along. We beam broadly, show as much teeth as possible, and go on with our day. Now, scientists are suggesting that the old ‘grin and bear it’ way of life could just be your ticket to happiness. The smile, as even as an indirect or unintentional response, may hold the key to controlling stress and regulating the heart rate.

The idea that smiling is healthy is not really a new one, because scientists have been studying the habits of the terminally optimistic for some time. It is now widely agreed that, for the most part, people ‘create’ their own luck. For example, if you naturally approach life with a positive mental attitude, you are more likely to notice when big opportunities come your way. The opposite is true for pessimists, who mistake having no luck for simply not picking up on it.

The Power of a Genuine Smile

The most interesting discovery then is the indication that all smiles have a positive impact on stress levels. According to psychologists and behavioural experts, human smiles can be divided into two categories; standard smiles and Duchenne smiles. The latter category describes the type of smile which is spontaneous. It emerges as a response to something truly enjoyable. It could be a joke, a funny picture, the company of a close friend, or a good coffee.

A Duchenne smile can be identified by the wrinkles that it creates around the mouth and eyes. You might have heard it said before that only reliable people smile with the whole face (and particularly the eyes), and this is true in some ways. The more genuine the smile, the more involvement from the eyes and mouth. In the past, experts believed that only Duchenne smiles had a notable impact on stress relief.

Now, this theory is being questioned. A recent study asked two groups of students to smile in a certain way. The first group held a Duchenne smile and the second a standard smile. A third ‘control group’ was asked to maintain a neutral expression. The interesting part is that the three smiling groups did not smile spontaneously. The researchers used chopsticks to engage the facial muscles usually involved in each of these expressions.

Duchenne versus Standard Smiles

They found that smiling does have a positive impact on stress levels and the heart rate, even if the responses are artificial. As the study subjects attempted to complete (deliberately frustrating) tasks, results showed that the Duchenne group handled stress more efficiently. The findings indicate that there may be more truth to the ‘smile, it might never happen’ motto than we ever thought.

In fact, behavioural scientists would go as far as to say that forcing a smile in a stressful situation will make you feel better, even if the response is an empty one to begin with. They give the age old example of being stuck in traffic. Rather than getting frustrated, hot, and flustered, take a moment to practice your smile. Even if it feels silly, your heart will likely benefit from the gesture.

While a grin, no matter how wide, cannot magically fix problems, it does act as an instant diffuser of stress and tension. It reduces the level of stress felt, so that a person has a chance to take stock of the situation and approach it from a healthier perspective. And, the role of the teeth should not be overestimated here. We know that people with strong and healthy teeth smile broader and more often. They open their mouths wider and gain the most benefit.

Smiling with Your Canines

The health of teeth can have a dramatic effect on mood, attitude, perspective, and approach to life. They are one of the most prominent features on the face. They can be used to signal a litany of different emotions, from anger to fear, discomfort, and joy. We use our teeth to greet people with and, if there are worries about their quality, it can seriously harm self-confidence. For modern humans, a pearly white grin really does make all the difference.

If a person has discoloured, damaged, or missing teeth, they are likely to take on behaviours designed to hide this. They might teach themselves how to smile with a closed mouth. Or, they may simply avoid smiling altogether. It is common for people who have issues with their teeth to cover their mouth with their hands as they talk. So, essentially, if smiling is a ticket to stress free living, the dentist is the right place to go to make it happen.

This is something which most doctors also agree with. For medical experts, dental health is an essential part of overall health. If the teeth and gums are not in good shape, many other (seemingly unrelated) parts of the body can suffer. And, in recent years, the link between dental health and physical wellbeing has only been strengthened. We now believe that poor oral health can contribute to everything from cancer to liver and kidney disease. If your teeth are wonky or misaligned, it could be time to think about adult braces.

The Importance of Good Teeth

So, what constitutes healthy teeth? Well, you do not have to own a flawless set of gnashers to live a long and healthy life. Everybody has their vices and fillings are, unfortunately, an unavoidable consequence of indulging in candy and carbonated drinks. While it is always better to take steps to prevent fillings from forming in the first place, if you do develop problems with your teeth, do not be too hard on yourself.

It happens to the best of us. The correct response is to head to your dentist and get the necessary repairs done as soon as you can. That way, you minimise the damage and make sure that it does not spread to any other healthy teeth. The importance of keeping up with regular dentist appointments cannot be overestimated, because this is how dental professionals spot problems before they turn into cracks, holes, and cavities.

If you love your teeth and your smile, brush twice a day and floss with a high quality product. If your teeth are prone to discolouration, it is a good idea to cut down on the consumption of things like coffee and wine. Or, at least, use a gently whitening toothpaste. Unfortunately, the only real advice for smokers, as far as oral health goes, is to quit. The habit wreaks havoc not just on the teeth, but also the gums. It can significantly increase the risk of mouth cancers.

The Cultural Context of a Smile

To return to the subject of smiling, it is clear to see that the response is a powerful behaviour. Its value and purpose has been discussed within many different contexts, but just recently, it has made its way into feminist rhetoric. For some women, being advised or recommended to smile is not a positive thing. They see it as an uninvited order, particularly if it is a man making the suggestion.

Yet, there are other women who vehemently disagree. They believe, as behavioural scientists do, that smiling is a necessary part of everyday life, even if it is not always genuine. This touches on the role of the smile in politeness and social cohesion. The vast majority of people would smile if advised to, simply to maintain the ‘status quo’ and avoid a hostile response. So, which is the right course of action? Can they both be right, but in different contexts?  

Whether we smile wide and broad or as a forced gesture of politeness, scientists all agree that the motion is deeply rooted in our evolutionary biology. As dogs wag their tails to indicate openness and warmth, human beings smile to diffuse tension and signify to others that they are safe to approach. It is a deeply ingrained gesture. If weren’t linked to something primitive and fundamental in our evolutionary makeup, ask yourself how a person blind from birth instinctively knows how to smile?  

The next time that you are having a tough day, feeling under the weather, or are just a bit fed up with work, why not have a go and see if the experts are right? According to them, it takes just one smile to bring stress levels down, lower the heart rate, and make a person feel better about themselves and their surroundings. It is time to make all of those trips to the dentist count and start wearing your teeth with pride.   

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