Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Subliminal Frowning Can Create A Powerfully Negative Somatic Marker

I woke up this morning an hour before my alarm clock sounded. I realized that I would not be able to get back to sleep so I held a few yoga stretches and lay back down to meditate. I was doing so concertedly, concentrating on abating the chaotic negative thinking that is constantly going on in my mind. I tried to notice the recurring waves of negative thought crash on the forefront of my consciousness and I was trying to break them up slowly but methodically by examining the sensations involved. I found myself actually making some headway. I felt some of the storm clouds in my mind begin to dissipate and then I realized what was really happening… I was slowly relaxing a low-grade, perpetual frown or grimace from my face that I must have learned to ignore long ago. This is a subtle wincing, barely perceptible in a mirror, that I believe may afflict many of us and contribute to psychological distress and even psychiatric disorder.

I stayed in bed for a full hour keeping the contorting expression from coming back. As soon as my mind wandered, the tension around my eyes would resurface and I realized that my motor systems had become accustomed to sustaining it. Similarly, I have found that, ever since a series of "traumatic" incidents 8 months ago, I wake up every morning clinching my teeth. There are many examples of our muscles retaining tension that is completely unnecessary. This happens because the brain systems responsible have compensated for the constant demand and moved on without continuing to apprise us of their relentless activity. By habituating to such burdens we force ourselves to carry them unknowingly. I think that this subliminal frown has contributed a good deal to my anxious and depressive thinking.

After contemplating this and attempting to bring awareness to the feeling of frowning (and its absence) for an hour, I got dressed and went on with my day. But something was very different. It was as if a huge weight was lifted. I felt like I had taken a powerful antidepressant - the feeling was unmistakable. Throughout the day today I noticed that the frown would return all on its own. Each time I noticed it, I allowed my face to turn placid again and the calm, tranquil feeling would reinstate. Now, at the end of the day, just thinking about frowning makes me feel nauseous. Holding a frown now feels like I am reinflicting a wound. I hope I never go back to inadvertently and subconsciously maintaining a discomfort-inducing countenance.

Now you might be a little skeptical. You might not believe that people have the capacity to unwittingly carry mental hardship with them in the form of a frown. But imagine a small monkey. Imagine this monkey was traumatized as a baby and ever since has trod around with a wince on his little face. He will derive pain from it. Just imagine how this would affect his inner world, his encounters with others and their impressions of him. He inevitably will perceive things as more negative than they really are because of the powerful interrelationships between bodily expression and emotional condition. The biological underpinnings of this have been explored by the "facial feedback hypothesis." I think a frown actually has the capacity to create a “somatic marker,” anchoring you to an aversive state. Please, spend a few moments of your own looking for this in yourself and taking measures to counteract it.

Addendum 2/15

I recently had a cup of coffee and bedded down in my garage for three hours in a search for the source of tension in my mind. I continued my search as I did before (in the anecdote above) when I realized that I was continually wincing. I had previously traced the source of a good proportion of unease and anxiety to the tension that I unconsciously held in my eyes and cheeks. Even though it seemed that my entire face was now fully relaxed I still figured that there must be another tense cramp somewhere in my psyche that I had to discover and unravel. I was in total dark, there were no noises and I tried to get as comfortable as possible so that I was not distracted by the urges to reposition myself. I imagined myself searching in the dark for a large knot somewhere in the recesses in my brain. The imagery was unrealistic but it helped to drive me toward what I was searching for. I expected to notice that my anxiety was maintained by a certain thought pattern. I half expected that this would generally consist of a string of normal thoughts followed by a brief, subtle state of panic repeated over and over again. I was searching for this pattern so that I could understand and interrupt it. But the pattern wasn’t psychological as I expected, it was still facial.
I must have been ignoring the sensation for 15 years, but when it finally reemerged into my consciousness it was clear and unmistakable. Lying in the dark, I felt a tingling sensation on a small strip on the bridge of my nose. I realized that the muscles that led up to this strip were highly flexed or tonic. The muscles fibers in this area constitute the superior portion of the nasalis muscle and especially the procerus muscle which crosses the bridge of the nose and anchors near the cheeks. For the first time, I could tell that even when I thought I was relaxing my face, these muscles were still in overdrive. It took an hour of meditative thought and exploration to even notice; however, once I became aware of the sensation it was impossible to ignore – it was all I could feel for several minutes. I felt that the muscles were very tense and stiff, but I could not relax them. I could feel that they were flexed but I couldn’t intervene, as in the hypertonia or spasticity that is seen in some cases of partial paralysis (or paresis).
Immediately after first feeling the sensation on the bridge of my nose I remembered that I had been struck over the head with a weapon in a fight in high school in this exact same location. The blow had shattered my nasal bone in several places and must have affected the nearby musculature and nerves. I realized that somehow this damage is still affecting me and that I couldn’t do anything to curtail it. I wondered how long I had been frustrated or burdened by this constant tension without realizing where it was coming from. I knew that I had an ongoing personal problem with psychological stress but I never guessed that it had such a simplistic physical anchor. Now that I had finally brought conscious awareness to the sensation of the tension I was determined to arrest it.
At this point I had been lying supine for over an hour and it took another full hour to develop some voluntary control over this muscle. For the first few several minutes I could not control it at all. I eventually “found” the muscle by trial and error. Actually, I first had to learn to clench the muscle before I could learn to relax it. Slowly, after several minutes of clenching I began to develop a sense for what it feels like to relax it. Interestingly, every time I actively tightened or relaxed the muscle, the patch of scar tissue on the bridge of my nose would tingle and feel numb. This was the exact same tingle and numbness that I have felt accompanying other examples of nerve damage. If you have ever had a deep tissue cut or wound where a nerve has been damaged then you know this feeling. It often indicates that the cortex is relearning how to control or receive feedback from an area of the body whose nerves have been damaged . My control over the flexion and relaxation of the muscles in my nose was feeble and imprecise at first. It got better, but every time I relaxed it I felt the numb and tingling sensation. I believe that nerve damage to this area was wholly responsible for over a decade and a half of unremitting wincing which in turn led to persistent anxiety.
Another issue that I think may have been involved is the following: The impact damaged my nasal muscles and nerves and gave my face a general dull, inattentive look that I tried to make up for by keeping my nose and eyes muscles tight. Especially in social situations I attempted to compensate for the hypotonia, in an effort to bring some life and energy back to damaged facial expressions. I think this made my social interactions neurotic and frenzied. Coincidentally, this kind of damage also happened to my cat, Niko. The little guy was tracking a bird’s nest and was pecked in the forehead by a protective mother bird. For at least a month Niko’s face looked dull and inattentive because his brow muscles were lax. The muscles or nerves must have been damaged because his eyes looked dull and tired even when I was trying to play with him. After a few months his eyes returned to their former state. Luckily, unlike me, Niko didn’t try to compensate for the damage, but he sure did look funny (and less attractive overall) for several weeks.
After a few weeks of working with the muscle every day I have gained enough control of it so that whenever I am alone it remains in a resting state. Interestingly though, every time I find myself in a social situation I have a tendency to flex this muscle and it causes social anxiety. It seems that having this muscle flexed became an integral component to the way I used my face socially. In fact, at this point, many of my social facial expressions cannot be expressed authentically or completely if I do not flex this nasal muscle. It seems that my entire facial repertoire has been built around this nasal flexion and when I relax it during a conversation, looks of concern, knowing glances and social smiles just do not come out properly.  I am now relearning how to make social expressions without the muscle and it is a slow but steady process. I used to flex this nasal muscle when I modeled or reenacted social interactions in my imagination. I would do this on a daily basis in the past and it was usually very stressful. Now I am able to relax, at least whenever I am alone, and this has brought renewed calm to my life as a whole. I am very grateful because I feel confident that I have been able to pinpoint the source of a good deal of my anxiety and neuroticism. I feel a little bit like I have a new lease on life because I have overridden a previously unconscious burden. Now I find that if I inhibit facial tension, it is actually difficult to become stressed. I think that this must be true of everyone and I wish to encourage people to master their emotions by becoming aware of and learning to subdue their negative expressions.

1 comment:

  1. This calls to mind the Facial Feedback Hypothesis:

    Chris Michel, photographer of the World's Saddest Dog ( ) said "I tried to cheer him up – he seemed happy to me." A disconfirming instance? : )