This 5-Second Relaxation Technique Is Strange, but It’s Proven
Forcing a smile and putting your hands out can calm you down. And there’s science to support that.
My head felt like it was about to explode. I was on a crowded subway train in New York City, homebound, with my child in tow. He was having a loud, epic temper tantrum. I had carried him down the subway steps, kicking and screaming, while also hauling our stroller. To top it off, I had a migraine. My head was pounding; my temper was rising. So I applied a skill I’d learned in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
It wasn’t a natural smile, it was a forced one. My lips were pursed, but I willed my mouth to stretch and turn up at the corners.
I also placed my hands in front of me, palms up, in a gesture of acceptance. I was doing what is known as “half-smile, willing hands,” a practice that can help encourage acceptance of your current situation and act as a distress tolerance skill. Believe it or not, it worked — I began to calm down.
The concept of “half-smile, willing hands” has become a staple of DBT. “All the DBT skills can come down to that principle, that you can change how you feel depending on how you behave,” says David H. Rosmarin, PhD, ABPP, founder and director of the Center for Anxiety in New York City, as well as an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. While he points out that DBT skills “aren’t magical tools, they’re learned cues,” he does say that “smiling is a little bit magical.”
While it might sound too good (and easy) to be true, it makes sense when we examine what’s going on in our brains while we send a message with our body. “When we smile, neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins — some call them ‘feel-good’ neurochemicals because they underlie our ability to have positive emotions, learn about rewards, relieve pain, and feel pleasure — are triggered,” says Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the Graduate Center and Hunter College of the City University of New York. “When [the neurochemicals] are released, your body is more relaxed and heart rate and blood pressure can even be lowered. So, smiling can help inoculate us against stress and lift our mood.” It’s known as the “facial feedback hypothesis.”
And what about the “willing hands”? Why does this simple action have a calming effect? Just as the brain releases feel-good neurochemicals in response to being happy, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) goes into action when we’re feeling stressed out or threatened — even if it’s in response to a situation that’s not life-threatening. As Rosmarin says, “The fight-or-flight system is triggered by the adrenal glands when the body perceives a threat. The glands secrete adrenaline into the bloodstream, which creates a cascade of physiological changes, including feeling stressed, panicked, and angry.”
If we think about what our hands might be doing when we’re in this panic mode (squeezed into fists, or clenched against the chest in a defensive pose) then we can explore what the opposite will communicate to the nervous system because, as Rosmarin points out, “People have more control over their fight-or-flight system than they realize.”
“Using the Willing Hands skill intentionally resets our body into the opposite posture, one that is receptive and open.”
By practicing willing hands, we learn to associate the physical action with the feeling of calming down: “It’s kind of like how people feel more sleepy the moment they get into bed,” Rosmarin explains. “Since we sleep in our beds, the bed becomes a cue for sleep. Similarly, by practicing the willing hands pose in conjunction with learning to regulate our emotions, over time the pose itself can become a cue for relaxation and acceptance.”
“Our brain, taking a cue from our relaxed and open body posture, may more easily allow us to move from an ‘all or nothing’ thinking process to a less emotional state in which we can consider other perspectives,” says Andrea Schklar, LCSW, DBT therapist at Skyland Trail, a residential mental health treatment organization in Atlanta. “Using the willing hands skill intentionally resets our body into the opposite posture, one that is receptive and open.”
It’s “a neat trick,” Dennis-Tiwary acknowledges, with multiple benefits: “[G]iven the powerful social signals you were sending to your kid, they probably were able to calm even on a subtle level, which helped you achieve more calm,” she says. “We socially regulate our own and others’ emotions all the time.” So not only was I sending a message to my brain, I was also sending a message to my child, whose tantrum finally began to subside — pretty powerful for something so simple.
A smile and willing hands is not, of course, a cure-all and won’t be effective in certain situations. The skill most probably isn’t going to be helpful in a life-or-death, survival scenario. It’s most useful when the situation is more ambiguous, notes Dennis-Tiwary: “When we’re piecing together information about how to react to a complex situation, our smile essentially tells our brain that there’s reason to feel good about things.”
In the case of that subway ride, what was happening wasn’t necessarily ambiguous — I think everyone on the train would have agreed that it sucked. It was my emotional path that felt like it was at a crossroads. “Half smile and willing hands” helped me calm down and be effective.
And finally, there was an effect that experts wouldn’t necessarily predict. My child had halted his tantrum to gape at his grinning mom. The other passengers appeared perplexed (What, after all, could I possibly have to smile about?). And seated across from a window, I caught sight of my own reflection — beaming, hands in front of me with the palms up — and started giggling. All of a sudden, I was smiling for real, and I felt even better.