Smiling at RA

Last updated: April 2016

You’re in the midst of a rheumatoid flare. You’re hurting, fatigued, and feeling like a flattened bag of week-old French fries someone dropped in the parking lot. So when a friend or family member says to you, brightly (and sincerely), “A smile is the best medicine,” it’s likely to elicit a biting snarl—or at least a dramatic roll of the eyes—in response.

That’s perfectly human. But (and don’t hate me, please?) your friend is right—and science proves it.

Scientific researchers, who conduct studies on just about anything you can think of (and a whole lot you can’t) have studied the science behind a smile. First, they’ve proven that tightening the muscles at the corners of your mouth—the ones that stretch your lips out horizontally and curve them into a smile—stimulates your brain to release endorphins, those natural, feel-good chemicals that prompt an instinctive feeling of well-being and happiness in all humans, regardless of race, ethnicity, or culture.

They’ve also discovered that this works even when you force a smile, though not quite as well as it does when it’s spontaneous. You realize what this means, right? It means you can literally lighten your mood by forcing yourself to smile.

In addition, seeing other people smile triggers an involuntary urge to smile, ourselves. You know how it is: you see and hear some friends laughing. Smiling (!) you approach and ask them “what’s so funny?” Or as you watch someone smiling as they play, you’ll find yourself smiling, too, even if it’s just a little smile. This response is hard-wired into us. There are all kinds of theories as to why it might be, but I have my own. I think the reason we smile when we see smiles is to keep those happy-making endorphins circulating through our brains. They keep us looking ahead with hope and help to prevent the blues, or worse, depression.

So, how does this all apply to rheumatoid disease?

First, who can argue that frequent pain, fatigue, disability, and feeling like something the cat dragged in isn’t a serious bummer? It’s hard to wake up to painfully tender, stiff joints every morning. It’s soul-killing to feel hollowed out and exhausted before you’ve even had lunch. I believe those of us who live with RD have every reason—and every right—to be grouchy, irritable, and low. And given that the vast majority of us still manage to take care of our families, work, and have social lives in spite of all that, it amazes me that more of us don’t sink into deep depression.

So we can all use a little help in the sunny-disposition department now and then. And here’s science, telling us just in time that we have a magic weapon against the blues already built in! We just have to use it!

Here’s how: Next time you’re feeling grumpy, frustrated, and on a fast line to the serious blues, take yourself to a mirror. I know, this is going to sound incredibly weird, but look at yourself and smile.

Yes, I actually said that. Tighten your zygomaticus-major and orbicularis-occult muscles (the ones at the corners of your mouth and eyes) and give yourself a big, goofy, sunny smile. Roll your eyes at yourself and do it again. And again. Go ahead, chuckle grimly at yourself and smile at yourself a few more times.

You’ll walk away from that mirror feeling a little better emotionally. (You can do this without a mirror, too, since just the act of smiling gets those endorphins going.)

Researchers say that not only will you feel better emotionally, you’ll probably feel a little better physically, too. I don’t know about you, but when I’m in pain and feeling like a run-over road-frog, I’m willing to do just about anything to feel better, even if the effect is temporary. And smiling is so easy.

Finally, remember that smiling—even if you’re forcing it—isn’t only good for you, it’s good for anyone in the general vicinity that happens to see you, too. Smiles beget smiles. They lower stress, they’re relaxing, and they can make you feel more positive about life.

Smiles really are very good medicine.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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