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Change Your Body, Change Your Emotions

How Some Physical Stimuli Can Affect Your Emotional State

Most people would readily accept the reality of the mind-body connection: that what your body physiology is doing is related to your subjective experience. You might intuitively think that first you have an experience in your mind, then it somehow transmits itself to affect your body. But research is showing the mind-body connection is very much more of a two-way street. In practical terms, most psychological help for people wanting to improve their emotional life, starts with the mind, and in particular, thoughts, assumptions, attitudes and mindsets. Cognitive therapy in particular, being probably the most established paradigm, does things this way. Behavioural therapy arguably puts the body first: at least behaviours and activities. But there are more immediate ways to make a difference.

I recently read of a beautiful example of research that illustrates this idea. I've been reading "Stealing Fire", a recently published book by Steve Kotler and Jamie Wheal, which looks like it's going to be very interesting. The researchers gave participants a glass of ice water to hold, and then introduced them to a stranger. Later they rated their first impressions of that stranger, and the researchers compared their judgements to another condition: the subjects instead held a hot drink while meeting the stranger. The results: the participants judged the stranger colder and with more suspicion when they held the cold drink. With the hot drink they (literally) warmed to the stranger, rating them as friendlier.

This reminded me of another well known experiment (for which I can't remember a reference). Subjects held a pencil in their mouth, using either their teeth only, or their lips only. Then they were given a cartoon and asked to rate how funny they found it. Holding the pencil with the teeth made the cartoon measurably funnier - the explanation being that holding the pencil with the teeth creates something like a smile, while with the lips creates a sort of glum look. The conclusion is that your facial expression is not simply a result of how you happen to be feeling, but also influences how you feel in turn - in other words a more chicken-and-egg relationship.

Kotler and Wheal give another example of the two-way nature of the mind-body connection. Botox injections into facial muscles have the effect of paralysing or immobilising them, thus smoothing out facial skin and making the recipient appear younger. But they're also known to relieve depression. Before you rush out to find a beauty therapist, there's a down side: botox injections reduce your empathy. What's going on here?

Well it seems botox injections help depression by prevening you looking sad, dejected etc. But since we feel empathy by mimicing others' facial expressions and noticing how it feels, you lose empathy because you lose the ability to adopt any facial expressions. (So presumably botox injections also curtaill your joy and positivity too.)

Can we turn this insight into practical support in achieving emotional resilience and positivity? Perhaps not surprisingly for a professional biofeedback practitioner, I think yes.

An obvious idea for achieving the benefits of botox without the drawbacks, is to learn to completely relax facial muscles using EMG (muscle tension) biofeedback. By placing the EMG sensors across the forehead (known as the frontalis placement) you can pick up a pretty good global measure of face and head tension. For most people it's easy to learn. When I first tried it for myself I thought it was so easy that it wouldn't be very useful but now I've completely revised that view. The thing is, emotional influences easily affect this EMG reading, so it's a matter of repeatedly letting go of the tightness.

Can EMG biofeedback help depression? There seems to be very little recent research of EMG biofeedback. I find that surprising and disappointing. I imagine it's because for psychophysiology researchers, other biofeedback and neurofeedback modalities are more appealing - EMG biofeedback is really incredibly simple.

I think there are potential pitfalls. In my experience depressed people can display a sort of slumped posture that can seem quite relaxed and even measure as quite relaxed, but even so is different from a relaxed but positive posture. I think EMG biofeedback can potentially help with mood issues but I wouldn't use it on its own. My own client work starts with EMG biofeedback and builds from there. 

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