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Smiles and Frowns Are Contagious for a Reason

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You know what they say: when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you. As it turns out, there’s a reason for that. A study published today in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences shows that mirroring other people’s facial expressions helps us connect. 

Scientists have known for some time now that our facial expressions can actually change our moods. A 2012 study found that people who held chopsticks in their mouths lengthwise, forcing their faces into fake smiles, felt happier and less stressed than people who maintained neutral expressions. 

We have a lot to gain from connecting with and understanding other humans; at times, that can mean the difference between life and death. As a result, we have evolved mechanisms that make those connections easier.

“Most people are face perception experts,” the authors write. “Faces, especially those expressing emotion, automatically capture our attention, and we extract the emotional meaning of those faces in a matter of a few hundred milliseconds, even subconsciously. Expressions of intense emotion, such as a wide-eyed expression of fear or a toothy grin, may have evolved to be highly distinguishable signals, easily recognizable even from a distance.” 

This study found that humans subconsciously “try on” each other’s expressions in order to understand how others are feeling. The authors reviewed 15 recent journal articles on facial expression mimicking and the role of muscle movements in emotion. There, they found evidence for what they call the sensorimotor simulation model of emotion perception. In plain English, they’re suggesting that we move our facial muscles to mimic the face in front of us, and that this movement triggers the memory of associated emotions, which triggers real emotion in the moment. 

An example: You’re used to frowning when we feel sad or angry. If you’re sitting in a coffee shop with your friend and she is frowning, even a little bit, you might frown too, without even realizing it. As your brain recognizes the frown on your face, it calls up examples of frowning in your own life, and the feelings that went along with them. You begin to feel just a little bummed. Because this is how your friend is feeling, it helps you connect and relate to her. Voila: social success.

The authors note that this skill is dependent on having a clear view of someone else’s face and being able to replicate their expression. Many people with autism avoid making eye contact, which may contribute to their difficulty recognizing others’ emotions. People who have had strokes or experienced Bell’s palsy may have trouble moving their facial muscles, which limits how much they can mimic the faces in front of them. People who were born with facial paralysis, on the other hand, have often developed other ways to tap into that same empathy.

For their next project, the researchers intend to study how humans perceive and identify other people’s facial expressions.

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8 Potential Signs of a Panic Attack
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It's not just fear or worry. In fact, many panic attacks don’t look like panic at all. Panic attacks come on rapidly, and often at times that don't seem to make sense. The symptoms of panic disorder vary from person to person and even from attack to attack for the same person. The problems listed below are not unique to panic attacks, but if you're experiencing more than one, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor either way.


Doctors sometimes call the autonomic nervous system (ANS) the "automatic nervous system" because it regulates many vital bodily functions like pumping blood all on its own, without our having to think about it. Panic attacks often manifest through the ANS, leading to increased heart rate or decreased blood pressure, which can in turn lead to feeling lightheaded or faint.


Feeling detached from yourself is called depersonalization. Feeling detached from the world, or like it's fake or somehow unreal, is called derealization. Both forms of dissociation are unsettling but common signs that a panic attack has begun.


Our digestive system is often the first body part to realize that something is wrong. Panic sends stress hormones and tension to the gut and disrupts digestion, causing nausea, upset stomach, or heartburn.


Panic attacks can manifest in truly surprising ways, including pins and needles or numbness in a person's hands or face.


The symptoms of a panic attack can look a lot like the flu. But if you don't have a fever and no one else has chattering teeth, it might be your ANS in distress.


While it may sound prophetic or at least bizarre, a sense of impending doom is a very common symptom of panic attacks (and several other conditions). 


The ANS strikes again. In addition to the well-known problems of hyperventilation or shortness of breath, panic attacks can also cause dyspnea, in which a person feels like they can't fill their lungs, and feelings of choking or being smothered.


Oddly enough, anxiety about anxiety is itself a symptom of anxiety and panic attacks. Fear of losing control or getting upset can cause people to avoid situations that could be triggering, which can in turn limit their lives. 

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Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between Feeling Anxious and Having Anxiety?
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Whether it’s giving a toast at a friend’s wedding or waiting for the results of medical tests, we all get worried, nervous, or stressed out sometimes. But what’s the difference between feeling anxious and having anxiety?

To find out, we talked with Dr. Karen Cassiday, president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. She says the essential feeling is the same—it’s the intensity that matters, and the effect the feeling has on a person’s life.

“Anxiety is a general human experience,” Dr. Cassiday tells Mental Floss. “It’s feeling some mild apprehension and the physical sensations that go with it, but being able to handle it. In an anxiety disorder, that danger signal gets out of control, and you feel like you have to take preventative action in order to protect yourself.”

A doctor may diagnose an anxiety disorder if someone has been feeling anxious and worried for months, and if their symptoms are making it hard to sleep, study, work, or otherwise live full lives.

“Some people, for example, might not take a raise at work because it means they might have to speak to people,” Cassiday says, “or travel, if they’re afraid of flying.”

Anxiety disorders take three forms: generalized anxiety, in which the stress tends to attach itself to anything and everything; social anxiety, which can make it very hard for a person to interact with others; and panic disorder, which manifests in scary panic attacks.

“People with anxiety disorders avoid normal life activities and experiences in order to avoid triggering their anxiety,” Cassiday says. “They aren’t able to choose to do things that people normally enjoy or that make their lives rich. They lose opportunities to connect with relationships or in the community, opportunities to be productive, to volunteer, and to make money or finish school.”

These conditions are strikingly common, affecting as many as 25 percent of the population.

If you’re experiencing these symptoms—well, we’re not going to tell you not to worry, but take some comfort in the fact that these conditions are treatable. Many people find relief with talk therapy and medication.

For folks who aren’t ready to take that step, Cassiday recommends a free app called Self Anxiety Management, and getting into meditation, yoga, and exercise.

“It doesn’t matter which type,” she says. “The best one is the one you’re willing to do.”


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