Driving Stress Getting You Down? Try Smiling

smileWhen driving anxiety hits, you may already have your usual slate of reactions. The sweating. The swearing. The pulling over to the side of the road. But you may not even think of trying another action that could help kick your driving stress to the curb.

Why not try smiling?

Smiling, even when it’s a forced smile, can do amazing things to your stress levels and for your peace of mind. This doesn’t mean you have to drive around town like a grinning fool, but it does mean you can pay attention to your facial expression during times of stress or any time throughout your day and end up with a bit of instant relief.

What Happens When You Don’t Smile

Whether you noticed it or not, you may have already met a number of detrimental effects of not smiling. And those effects were not all just in your head. Several studies examined the impact a positive facial expression can have on your own health and the reactions of those around you.

A study published in the journal Aesthetic Plastic Surgery found that people who suffered from facial neurological disorders that prevented them from smiling increased their risk of suffering from depression. Part of the reason was physiological and the other part was social.

Those who were physically unable to smile were unable to benefit from the physical or mental effects of smiling. And even though they were able to experience positive emotions, they missed out on the social consequences of not being able to display those positive emotions.

Imagine the reaction you’d get if someone went out of their way to do something wonderful for you and you felt the glee of their actions but met their efforts with a blank face or a frown. Unless you explained you were physically unable to smile, you may not receive many wonderful favors going forward, at least from that same person.

Another study prevented frowning in people suffering from depression with the use of Botox. Half of the depression-suffering participants received Botox injections into their frown muscles, while the other half received placebo injections.

Six weeks later, 27 percent of those who could not frown went into depression remission, compared to the 7 percent remission rate for the group that received the placebo. That particular study was presented at a 2012 conference by study author and dermatologic surgeon Dr. Eric Finzi and is under consideration for publication, according to the Wall Street Journal.

What Happens When You Do Smile

If you are physically able to smile, a number of other studies suggest you’d be better off doing so. Smiling can help:

  • Reduce stress levels, which can help reduce overall anxiety and driving fears
  • Lower heart rates
  • Stave off fatigue
  • Bring an attitude of gratitude and positive thoughts
  • Make any task or undertaking easier and more pleasant

“You can influence mental health by what you do with your face, whether you smile more or frown less,” Finzi told the WSJ.

“We smile because we feel not threatened,” Dr. Sarah Pressman added. She co-authored another study, published in Psychological Science, which checked out the effects smiling after a stress-inducing task. She noted that smiling sends out a signal to our bodies that all is safe and well.

Her study gave chopsticks to the 170 participants and had them hold the chopsticks in their mouth one of three ways: in a manner that induced a neutral expression with the lips in a straight line, in a manner that produced a polite smile and in a manner that produced a full smile.

Those who were smiling, whether mildly or fully, ended up with lower heart rates as well as a reduced stress recovery time following the arduous task. You might not even have to wait until the task is complete to enjoy the benefits of smiling.

Long-distance runner Kyle Gorjanc started smiling during her athletic events and noted a profound difference. She began by forcing herself to smile while running but eventually found it began to come more naturally.

“(Smiling) ensures that long-distance running will be much, much easier,” she said in the WSJ. “What happens is you actually find things to be happy about instead of just smiling for the sake of doing it.” One more perk is that other people are typically quick to return a smile, enhancing the good vibes and mood even further.

Where Smiling Fits in with Driving Fears

Here’s where smiling can definitely fit in to help driving anxiety and fears. Even if no one sees you grinning away at the wheel, your positive expression can have positive effects during and after your trek. The same theory may hold true when you’re taking driving classes, thinking about driving or thinking about anything at all.

It doesn’t matter what type of smile you choose, with three basic types for the taking.

  • The Duchenne smile: Named after the French neurologist who initially described it, the Duchenne is the full smile that involves muscles around the mouth and eyes.
  • The Pan Am smile: Named after airline workers who force a polite smile to everyone, this grin only involves muscles around the mouth.
  • The internal smile: Zen Habits blogger Leo Babauta talks about this state, which can involve a placid, unsmiling face but also involves a positive feeling in your inner being due to a thought that brought about an internal burst of happiness.

“You’ll forget to smile in some moments, because your mind gets caught up in stories about the past, stresses about what might happen in the future,” Babuata explains. “None of this is happening right now — it’s just movies playing in our heads.” Remember this the next time you’re driving and you may be amazed at what can happen.

Coming Soon: Tips for Smiling Your Way through Driving Anxiety


Study info:

  • Specific Impairment of Smiling Increases the Severity of Depressive Symptoms in Patients with Facial Neuromuscular Disorders. Aesth. Plast. Surg. 23:416–423, 1999

Photo Credit: ToniVC via Compfight cc