Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Free Therapy

I am not ready to say that all of the best things in life are free, but some of the best therapy will cost you nothing. In monetary terms… that is.

If your problem is addiction, then clearly a 12 step program and its attendant meetings is one of the most effective treatments that you can find. And meetings are free.

Even if you addiction has reached the point where you need to be detoxed in rehab, once you return to your old haunts, AA meetings will provide an essential level of social support.

And we all know, or at least, we ought to know, that aerobic exercise is an excellent treatment for many, but not all, depressions.

As long as you have medical clearance, jogging or bicycling will cost you next-to-nothing and will do very good things for your mood, your attitude, and your health.

Finally, there’s one form of treatment that also works well, but that is often disparaged because it does not reach the same level of seriousness as deep psychotherapy. That would be the smile treatment.

It makes sense that mental health professionals would disparage all of these free therapies. If everyone were jogging and smiling many of them would be out of business.

Serious intellectuals disparage them too. Deep thinkers imagine that the human mind is omnipotent, so they cannot really grasp the fact that a good workout or a smile will improve your mental attitude.

Many intellectuals have willingly suffered the indignity of the silent treatment that used to be the stock-in-trade of psychoanalysts because it struck them as intellectually sophisticated.. Call them martyrs for the cause.

Yet, should you tell them that a smile will have a more positive effect on their mental health, they will take that to be one indignity too many.

Besides, I have never seen a picture of a smiling Sigmund Freud. He might have gotten it wrong, but Freud was incontestably very smart. For intellectuals being smart will always trump being right.

Intellectuals do not understand how a superficial change in appearance, a contortion of facial muscles, can affect the workings of the almighty mind.

It sounds like nonsense, but it is nevertheless true.

This is not, or should not be, news. Researchers have known about the smile effect since the time of Darwin. Now, they have been doing some serious research into why and how it works.

Happily enough, Ron Gutman has written about the topic for Forbes. Link here.

Intrigued by the possibility that smiling more often would put us in a better mood, Gutman set out to research the question.

He credits Charles Darwin for having first proposed this idea. Gutman explains: “Charles Darwin, who in addition to theorizing on evolution in The Origin of the Species, also developed the Facial Feedback Response Theory, which suggests that the act of smiling actually makes us feel better (rather than smiling being merely a result of feeling good).

“The findings showed that facial feedback (such as imitating a smile) actually modifies the neural processing of emotional content in the brain, and concluded that our brain’s circuitry of emotion and happiness is activated when we smile!”

I would emphasize the fact that a smile does not have to feel like the expression of an inner state of contentment. When we imitate the smiles of other people, we will still gain a benefit.

Gutman adds that smiling is largely more effective than chocolate in making people feel better. Apparently, one smile is worth 2,0000 chocolate bars. Surely, it is better for your diet.

And smiling also makes you feel as you would if you had just come into a lot of money.

Of course, it is possible to adopt a dour disposition and permanent scowl as a sign of sophistication. Repressing your natural and normal impulse to smile will do your attitude no good.

Nor will Botox. When  people numb their facial muscles they find it much more difficult to break out a broad and sincere smile. Thus, Botox will place you in a worse mood.

Neuroscience has confirmed the importance of smiling. Gutman reports: “Smiling has documented therapeutic effects, and has been associated with: reduced stress hormone levels (like cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine), increased health and mood enhancing hormone levels (like endorphins), and lowered blood pressure.”

While it might be a good idea to fix your face into a smile or to watch more sitcoms that make smile, the best way to increase our smile quotient is to hang out with people who smile a lot.

Gutman explains that when we meet someone who smiles, we feel compelled to smile. Call it a mirroring effect or a type of reciprocity, but: “other people’s smiles actually suppress the control we usually have over our facial muscles, compelling us to smile.” Also, studies show: “…that it’s very difficult to frown when looking at someone who smiles."

He explains: “Because smiling is evolutionarily contagious and we have a subconscious innate drive to smile when we see one. This occurs even among strangers when we have no intention to connect or affiliate with the other person. Mimicking a smile and experiencing it physically helps us interpret how genuine a smile is, so that we can understand the real emotional state of the smiler.”

This reveals a basic truth: the next time you want some to smile at you, smile at them. Most especially if you are approaching someone you do not know in a strange venue like a bar.

Is smiling going to solve all of your problems? Of course, not.

It is helpful and therapeutic, but it is not a magic bullet. When it comes to feeling demoralized, there is no such thing as a magic bullet.

Coupled with exercise, smiling will improve your mood sufficiently to give you a fighting chance at dealing with whatever dilemmas are slowing you down. That in itself makes it worth cultivating.


Therapy Culture said...

Only works when I already feel "normal".

If I'm sad or depressed, no amount of fake smiling helps.

Anonymous said...

TO: Therapy Culture
RE: Try....

.....EXERCISE and fake smiles. I do believe that it requires BOTH.

The exercise, especially strenuous, releases endorphines.

However, it takes {HORROR!} self-discipline to do it when you're already in a 'hole'-lotta-trouble.

It helps to have some good music as well. Get an iPod and load it with music to work-out to. Mine has a 'cheerful', 'driving' and 'uplifting' mixture of:

• Jazz
• Rock
• Christian
• Christian Rock
• New Age
• Classical
• Teco
• And a touch of Country Two-Step


[Courage is your greatest need.]

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for adding some helpful advice, Chuck.

Clearly, exercise and smiling, even smiling your way through exercise as the article recommends, are necessary. And a lot of discipline, too.

And let's not forget the immortal words of Harvard psychiatrist, Richard Mollica: "the best anti-depressant is a job."

Susan said...

A job.....and also, life, in general, is an excellent therapy.