Chronic Tension in Facial Muscles Can Keep You Stuck in Stress and Emotions
If you’ve ever watched the TV show Lie To Me, you know that people automatically express their emotions through their facial expressions, whether they want to or not. Our nervous system is hardwired to contract our mimetic muscles (facial muscles) in certain patterns to convey a range of emotions—like happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, surprise, and fear—as a means of communication.
Throughout our lives, we tend to make some of the same facial expressions over and over based on our personalities and habitual reactions. With repetition, chronic tension builds up in our facial muscles just like it does in muscles throughout our body. This is why as people get older, their faces may gradually become lopsided or stuck in a stressed or frowning expression.
And more importantly: In the same way that chronic tension in our postural muscles can keep us stuck in a state of stress, chronic tension in our facial muscles can keep us stuck in the corresponding emotional state.
In this post I’ll discuss how mimetic muscles express emotion, and how to release chronic tension in these muscles in order to let go of the related stress and emotion. You may be surprised by how relaxed you feel after doing a few simple exercises to release the tension in your face!
How many facial expressions can we make?
Charles Darwin was the first to propose that human emotions and the corresponding facial expressions are universal. His idea was dismissed by most scientists until the work of Silvan Tomkins, Paul Ekman, Wallace Friesen, and Carroll Izard established that facial expressions were largely consistent across cultures.
Ekman and Friesen created the Facial Action Coding System, which shows in detail every movement that our mimetic muscles can make.
For many years, it was believed that humans only make six basic facial expressions: happy, sad, disgust, anger, surprise, and fear (contempt is sometimes considered a seventh). Then in 2014, researchers at Ohio State University used a computer to analyze over 5,000 photos and found that instead of just six, there are actually 21 universal expressions: the six basic ones, plus 15 compound expressions like “sadly angry” and “happily disgusted.”
In 2019, Ohio State University researchers discovered even more universal expressions. They analyzed 7.2 million images and found 35 expressions that express emotion in the same way across cultures. They were happy to find that while we use just one expression to convey disgust, three to convey fear, and five each for sadness and anger, humans have 17 expressions to convey a range of happy emotions.
Scientists are motivated to learn more about facial expressions because they want to track how genes, chemicals, and neural pathways control emotion. They hope to apply these findings to treatment of conditions like PTSD, which involves emotional triggers, and autism, which involves a lack of recognition of other people’s emotions.
The difference between macroexpressions and microexpressions
The expressions that the Ohio State University researchers have been studying are called macroexpressions. These are the facial expressions we make when we don’t feel the need to hide or suppress our emotions. They may last from a fraction of a second up to a few seconds at a time.
Microexpressions are the fleeting expressions we make when we’re trying to hide or suppress our emotions, either consciously or subconsciously. These are the type studied by Paul Ekman, whose work is the basis for the TV show Lie To Me. The show follows deception researcher Dr. Cal Lightman, who analyzes microexpressions made by potential criminals in order to solve crimes. Since it’s extremely hard to prevent ourselves from making microexpressions, it’s assumed that these minuscule, momentary movements of our facial muscles tell the truth about what we’re feeling.
Most of us can tell the difference between a real smile and a fake smile—a genuine smile usually involves contracting the orbicularis oculi muscle, which raises the cheeks and forms wrinkles around the eyes. But not everyone notices the wide range of microexpressions that other people make. It’s been suggested that some psychics may simply be very skilled at reading microexpressions, body language, and vocal intonations, and that they may not even be aware that their ability to do so is what gives them their “psychic powers.”
Can our facial expressions actually make us feel emotions?
We know that our facial muscles automatically contract in certain patterns when we feel certain ways as a means of communication. But is the opposite true as well—do our facial expressions make us feel the corresponding emotions?
While different studies and research methods have a range of results, overall the answer is yes. Smiling reduces stress, and being forced to furrow the brow makes people feel sadness, anger, and disgust. So when our facial muscles become tight and keep us stuck in certain expressions, we’ll tend to be stuck in that emotional state.
And on the flip side, inhibiting facial expressions prevents us from completely feeling our emotions. When people aren’t able to smile, they feel less of a humor response than those who are allowed to smile while watching funny cartoons. And when test subjects are injected with Botox to paralyze their facial muscles, their ability to process emotional language and read facial expressions is slowed. Sensory feedback from facial muscle contractions is critical to our ability to fully experience emotions and understand what others are feeling.
Facial expressions aren’t limited to direct, face-to-face communication with others. They’re so intrinsically tied to your emotional state that you make facial expressions even when you’re alone and no one can see you. (Notice this next time you’re watching TV alone!)
Simple exercises to relax your facial muscles, reduce stress, and release emotions
It’s extremely important to release the muscles throughout your body to prevent muscle and joint pain and reduce stress. It’s just as important to release chronic tension in your facial muscles, because doing so will reduce stress and improve emotional flexibility, and can prevent headaches and TMJ pain as well.
We subconsciously tighten our muscles as a way to defend or protect ourselves, or at the very least to prepare ourselves for what’s coming. When you learn how to relax your facial muscles, you may notice that you feel more open, relaxed, and less defensive—like a “blank slate” is how I describe the feeling.
By no means am I suggesting that you avoid making facial expressions. Not only can suppressing your emotions lead to internal conflict, but inhibiting your expressions also affects your interactions with others. Freely make all the faces you want, and then simply be aware of when tension starts to build up.
Ready? Take the next four minutes to do some simple pandiculations for your facial muscles by following along with the video below. You can do the exercises right where you are. Just sit back, get comfortable, relax, and close your eyes. When you’re done, take a few moments with your eyes closed to completely relax all of your facial muscles and notice the effect on your mental state.