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.

Luisa Colón
Elemental
Published in
5 min readMar 10, 2020

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Photo: Paper Boat Creative/Getty Images

MyMy 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).

I smiled.

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…

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Luisa Colón
Elemental

Luisa Colón is a Brooklyn based writer (WAKING UP IN GRAVESEND) and artist. Recent work is available at luisacolon.com; Insta @suchthingsido.