Last week I wrote about the one-word piece of medical advice my doctor gave me that was life-changing. On my discharge instructions he wrote, “Smile.”
(You can read the whole piece here. But in short, I’m going through a process to figure out why I’ve had insomnia for more than a decade. In the meantime, waking up in the middle of the night was giving me anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep, or that sleep deprivation would make the next day really, really hard. My doctor told me to smile when I wake up in the middle of the night, because it prevents the release of stress hormones.)
I was skeptical that smiling was as beneficial as he claimed, so I came home and did my own research. It turns out, there’s lots of solid research to support the doctor’s recommendation. The simple act of smiling — whether it’s natural or forced — triggers a cascade of positive neurotransmitters in your brain, which translates into lots of mental and physical health benefits!
Since I wrote that post, I’ve had a lot of people ask me how my smiling experiment is going. So here’s an update: I still have insomnia, but my anxiety level has definitely improved. But honestly, the biggest benefit I’ve noticed is during the day. When I’m stressed or frustrated or exasperated, I’ve started smiling (even when I don’t feel like it) and in a few seconds, the stress starts to dissipate. It’s crazy how effective it’s been, and crazy that it’s taken me so long to find out this simple secret!
And so, without further ado, here’s why smiling is so good for you!
Even though smiling seems like a simple act that only involves your facial muscles, there’s growing evidence that shows smiling can improve almost every area of your health. From your mood to your pain level to your blood pressure and immune system, here are five surprising reasons why smiling can improve your health…starting today!
Smiling is good for your mental health.
The next time you feel sad or anxious, stop, take a deep breath,and remind yourself to smile. Even if you have to fake a smile, this simple act triggers your brain to release serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that improve your mood and help you feel calm, positive and relaxed!
Smiling decreases pain.
When you smile, your brain also releases endorphins, which are natural painkillers. Endorphins latch onto opiate receptors in the brain and function like narcotics do to diminish your body’s perception of pain. So the next time you’re in pain, smile — or watch a show that makes you laugh, or tell a joke to a friend — and the endorphins that flow will help alleviate your discomfort.
Your body is good at sensing two states: safety and danger. When your muscles are tense and your stress level is high, your body perceives that it’s in danger. In that state, cells aren’t able to repair themselves well because they’re in defensive mode. However, when you smile, your muscles relax, signaling that you’re safe. In this state, cells take the time and quality nutrients they need to repair themselves well.
Smiling lowers your blood pressure.
In addition to improving your mood and alleviating pain, the neurotransmitters released when you smile — serotonin, dopamine and endorphins — cause your whole body to relax. When your blood vessels relax, there’s less pressure on the artery walls, which causes your blood pressure and heart rate to drop. These positive effects last for hours after your smile has faded away.
Smiling boosts your immune system.
When you’re under stress, your body releases catecholamines (like epinephrine) that raise your heart rate, increase your anxiety, and suppress the activity of your immune cells. When you smile, your catecholamine levels drop, and your immune cells become more active so they can effectively defend you from viruses, bacteria and other pathogens.
Want to try it with me? The next time you feel anxious or stressed, smile instead! Of course, a natural smile is more fun, but even if you have to fake the smile, the same neurotransmitter cascade will happen in your brain.
Let me know how it works for you — you can share your experience in the comment section below!
(Note: This blog post contains excerpts from an article I wrote for www.goldengateurgentcare.com)