What is it about?

Some researchers propose that our facial expressions can modulate our experienced emotions, similar to how our emotions influence our facial expressions. Based on this theory, smiling while feeling distressed may potentially lessen the intensity of one’s negative emotions. We tested this hypothesis by evaluating the effectiveness of smiling in modulating experienced emotions and distress tolerance during a distress-eliciting task. We also examined whether these effects vary based on borderline personality features severity and tendencies to value and attend to emotions.

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Why is it important?

Distressing situations and negative emotions may negatively impact one's well-being, particularly for people who have difficulties regulating their emotions (e.g., persons with borderline personality disorder). Some psychotherapies teach clients with borderline personality disorder to smile during distress as a tool to improve distress tolerance. Yet, it is unclear whether this strategy is effective, and if so, for whom? In our study, participants who covertly maintained a smile during a distress-eliciting task did not demonstrate better distress tolerance or negative/positive emotions compared to participants who maintained a neutral facial expression. Furthermore, the effectiveness of smiling did not appear to differ based on borderline personality features severity. In contrast, our findings indicate that smiling (vs. neutral expression) was linked to worse distress tolerance and positive emotions in participants who tended to devalue and not attend to their emotions. Yet, participants who highly valued and frequently attended to their emotions demonstrated better distress tolerance when smiling (vs. neutral expression). Therefore, our findings suggest that overall this strategy does not appear to be effective in aiding distress tolerance. Yet, it may be helpful for some and detrimental to others based on high or low tendencies to value and attend to emotions.

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This page is a summary of: Smiling to tolerate distress: The moderating role of attention to emotion., Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, January 2021, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/cbs0000188.
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