"Mini Brain Hacks That Can Change How You Feel" by School Psychologist/Director of Counseling Jen Hamilton
If someone could offer a pill that had no side effects and could immediately reduce anxiety, shift your mindset, or increase confidence ... wouldn't everyone be lining up for a prescription? As it turns out, there are some tremendously simple activities that you can do that can actually affect your physiology and neurochemistry in subtle ways, thus improving your mood and outlook.
My interest in this topic began several years ago, when I started using mindful breathing with students who were struggling with anxiety. For anyone who has ever struggled with anxiety, or sat with a child who is struggling with anxiety, you know that it is very difficult to "talk oneself out of" feeling stressed, panicked, or overwhelmed. But by focusing on slowing the breath, physiological changes occur in the body that can be measured: respiration and heartbeat slow down, blood begins to circulate more to the extremities, and blood pressure goes down. And because the brain is part of the physiological system, racing thoughts also start to slow. As it turns out, a calm body is incompatible with an anxious mind!
The realization that a simple behavior can significantly change how one feels got me wondering about other small activities that might have a powerful effect on how we experience the world around us. In my search for more ideas to share with students, I came upon a fascinating study conducted in 1988 by social psychologists Strack, Martin, and Stepper. In the experiment, two groups of subjects were asked to watch a cartoon and then rate how funny they perceived it to be. Half of the subjects were asked to watch while holding a pencil between their lips, while the other half were asked to watch while holding a pencil between their teeth. Unbeknownst to the subjects, they were essentially being manipulated to hold their facial muscles in a frowning position or a smiling position. Without exception, the subjects who held the pencil between their teeth (the 'smilers') rated the cartoon as significantly funnier! The psychologists concluded that just by smiling, we can change our mood and outlook.
Often, we think of smiling as something we do when we feel happy; but this research showed that there is a bi-directional effect at play. If you smile, it can actually affect your neurochemistry in such a way that you actually feel happier immediately! You don't have to wait to feel happy to smile... Even if you are having a lousy day and are in a bad mood, forcing yourself to smile (even a fake smile, or a 'pencil-between-the-teeth' smile) can significantly brighten your mindset.
One more wonderful example of this bi-directional effect comes from social psychologist Amy Cuddy, whose lecture on body language is among the most watched in the history of TED Talks.
Dr. Cuddy eloquently explains how, in the animal kingdom, animals who are trying to exert their dominance or power make themselves big (think of a cobra before it strikes, a bear up on its hind legs, or a peacock displaying its feathers). Body chemistry is altered in these states; hormones are released (the power/aggression hormone testosterone goes up, and the stress hormone cortisol goes down) and this affects behavior. Cuddy asserts that human beings are also very much affected by our posture and body language. Imagine someone who is feeling very timid or unconfident: They may be hunched up, head down, trying to make themselves smaller.
Conversely, imagine someone who has just won a race: we can clearly imagine the 'victory' pose—head held high, arms up in the air. If we take a confident pose, if we try to take up more space, Cuddy maintains that you actually can increase your confidence! Before a presentation, test, performance, or race, she suggests that you strike a "power pose" (perhaps hide out in a bathroom stall for a few minutes) and your physiology and neurochemistry will respond, with the immediate result of increased feelings of power and confidence.
Sometimes, when we are feeling defeated or negative, it is easy to get into a rut of thinking that creating change in negative patterns or in attitude is too difficult. But these simple "brain hacks" might just give you the tiny kick-start you need to realize that actually, you don't need to wait around to feel better to start acting different. As psychologist Alfred Adler posited in the early 1900's with his acting "as if" theory, if you want to feel calm, slow your breathing and make your body act calm. If you want to feel happier, do what you would do if you were already feeling happy—smile! And if you want to feel confident, strike a confident pose, and the feelings will follow. You don't need to wait.. Just do it!