Nursing Student? Just Grin and Bear It. Literally.

By Justine Fischer, Nursing Student and MidlevelU Contributor

Having a rough shift or just a stressful week? With the start of my summer semester in an accelerated nursing program, I definitely am. Always. Have you heard the saying “grin and bear it"? Or, how about, “smiling is contagious”? There is a lot of truth to these cliche sayings. By the end of this post, you will understand how these are applicable to nursing students as well as nurses for lowering stress.

A 2012 study by Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman at the University of Kansas examined whether manipulated facial expressions have an effect on the stress response. In a nutshell, here's a look at their research.

Who: Researchers studied 170 participants aged 18-25 who were screened for facial muscular disorder, lack of English fluency, and psychological disorders (AKA participants were able to understand directions, they didn’t have a psychological disorder and they had no muscular facial disorders that would alter the results of the study).

What: Prior research differentiated between a regular smile that engages zygomaticus major muscles (the muscle in your cheek) and a “genuine” Duchenne smile which engages the zygomaticus major AND the orbicularis oculi muscles (the muscles around your eyes). Participants in the study were randomly placed into a neutral expression group, a regular smile group, and a Duchenne smile group. Participants then underwent the stressful task of having their hand submerged in freezing cold water while being hooked up to heart rate monitors to monitor the body’s stress response.

When:  2012

Where: The University of Kansas

Why: The researchers found out that people who were smiling when forced to stick their hands in the cold water had lower heart rates during the stress recovery period (right after the activity). The smiling groups also reported less of a decrease in positive affect during the stressful task. This indicated that smiling during times of stress has physiological and psychological benefits.

What does that all mean for us as nursing students and nurses? Basically it means that smiling during stress can be beneficial! So is smiling contagious too? A review of research by Wood et al. (2016) explained that we often mimic the facial expressions of others because it helps us understand other's emotions. So, yes, smiling is kind of contagious. Not only can forcing a smile improve your own emotional state, it's benefits can be passed along to others. 

As nurses we are often in stressful situations and interacting with people constantly. The next time you’re in a high stress situation, try smiling; it may help you to feel better. That smile may also cause the people around you to smile and lower their physiological stress response or psychological stress. The wonderful thing about incorporating this research into your daily life is that there is no downfall. How much harm can a smile really do? Lets just say that the possible benefits severely outweigh the negatives. Maybe next time if I smile while taking my next pharmacology exam I will be less stressed and perform better, it might just be worth a try!