About-Face: Botox (and Body Language) Heal Depression
When I think of botox, my first thought is usually, "Ew." The thought of injecting toxins into the face using a big needle not only makes me shudder, but makes me get all judge-y of the people who do it for vanity. But the advent of botox has brought on an interesting side effect: it's helping people with depression. When I first read about this, I assumed it was doing so in the same way that going to the salon and getting a new hairstyle can be a feel-good experience, making one feel pampered and a little more confident. However, the reason botox reduces depression comes down to a principle I return to over and over in therapy: our body language and actions affect our feelings, not just the other way around. This is a principle I referred to in previous blog post recommending Amy Cuddy's TED talk, "Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are."
Botox keeps the muscles in the forehead from furrowing in sadness, anger and fear. It turns out that when we don't make expressions reflecting negative emotions, it's harder to feel those emotions; our brains get the message that things aren't all that bad. As Amy Cuddy points out, even people who hold in a pencil in their mouths to force smiling tend to feel happier. So here's the wrinkle (pun intended) with botox: it can also reduce people's ability to empathize with other's emotions. When you can't wrinkle your forehead in concern, it's difficult to feel concern. So what do we do with this new information?
I'm not planning to start doling out Botox in my office, nor am I recommending that people run out and get an injection from the nearest plastic surgeon. Again, ew. What I am going to do is emphasize the importance of pausing and paying attention to body/facial language. If you want to feel more confident, stand taller and relax your shoulders. If you want to feel more peaceful, breathe slowly and relax your facial muscles. If you want to feel happier and more hopeful, practice smiling even if it's difficult. "Fake it 'till you make it" works. That's something to smile about.