TUESDAY, July 31, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Stressed out? Turn that frown upside down and you might just feel better, new research contends.
Researchers at the University of Kansas subjected college students to anxiety-inducing tasks and found that those who smiled through them appeared to have less stress.
The study, led by research psychologists Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman, is scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.
"Age-old adages, such as 'grin and bear it,' have suggested smiling to be not only an important nonverbal indicator of happiness but also wishfully promotes smiling as a panacea for life's stressful events," Kraft said in a journal news release. "We wanted to examine whether these adages had scientific merit; whether smiling could have real health-relevant benefits."
To do so, they had 169 university students engage in tasks known to induce stress, such as tracing a star using their non-dominant hand while looking at a reflection of the star in a mirror. Another task had the participants plunge their hand into icy water.
The students performed these tasks under three conditions: not smiling; being explicitly instructed to smile; and while holding chopsticks in their mouth in a way that forced the face to smile.
The researchers included the chopsticks condition because they wanted to gauge the effect of "genuine" smiling (which involves the muscles around the mouth and eyes), and so-called "standard" smiles, which involve only the muscles around the mouth -- the kind of smile induced by the chopsticks.
Kraft and Pressman used heart rate measurements and self-reported stress levels to assess how perturbed the participants were during the tasks.
The study found that participants who wore any kind of smile were less stressed during the tasks than those with neutral facial expressions, and stress levels dipped especially low for folks with "genuine" smiles.
According to the authors, this means that even forcing a smile during an unpleasant task or experience might actually lower your stress level, even if you're not feeling happy.
So, Pressman reasoned, "the next time you are stuck in traffic or are experiencing some other type of stress, 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."
There's more on managing stress at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.