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The Tension In Your Face And What You Can Do About It

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A humorous skit featured the provocative phrase "resting bitch face" or RBF a couple of years ago and, since then, it's been viewed over seven million times on YouTube. Even if you've never seen the skit or heard the phrase, it's not hard to figure out what it means. It refers to that confusing look you've seen on the face of a salesperson, co-worker, or family member when they appear irritated or disgusted for no reason at all.

Jessica Bennett, columnist and feature writer for the New York Times, wrote about her own RBF after seeing a random photo. She was dismayed to see her "mouth curled slightly downward, brows furrowed, lips a little pursed, and.... looking simultaneously bored, mad and skeptical". In order to feel the inherent muscular tension in this look, try to mimic it. Can you imagine how much effort it would take if this was your "resting" face?

The truth is, your own personal version takes just as much work. But, like Jessica, you don't notice it until you see a photo that makes you cringe. But rather than judging your appearance, vowing never to be photographed again, or heading for the Botox, why not be curious and learn how to it let go? Because your "resting face" sets in when you're unaware, simply building awareness can help you do something about it. A "resting calm face" might be closer than you think.

Whether you're a man or a woman, if you're stressed, worried, tired, or just spaced out, your face can lock into a holding pattern. It clamps down and scrunches in. You don't make this happen; your muscles seem to have a mind of their own. Even when you notice the frown, scowl or pout and let it go, the minute your awareness shifts, it'll be back again. The truth is: your "resting face" has a grip that's neither relaxing nor conscious.

As the Israeli physicist Moishe Feldenkrais proposed in his book Awareness Through Movement, moving your body builds awareness and dislodges unconscious tension patterns. As we age, we tend to move our body in the same way over and over again. This limits the range of motion as well as the range of expression. Unfortunately, when your face sets into a holding habit, you end up with a default expression that is hardly fresh and rarely pleasant. Don't worry, your smart body can help you break the habit and find a relaxed resting face that works for you. Here's how:

Feel it. Don't look in the mirror, don't wonder why or build a story, just get quiet and close your eyes. Think about any conflict in your life: schedule, relationship, finances, career. Can you feel the disquiet lodge in your face? Notice what muscles are engaged and how much. Feel the shape of this tension and exaggerate it a bit.

Free it. Tension is a sustained contraction. To let it go, slowly & intentionally move the muscles of your face (cheeks, mouth, forehead, chin, tongue, eyes, nose) in as many ways possible. No stretching or pushing; just move very slowly as you explore every expression imaginable... even some silly ones. Let your face rest again, search for any leftover tension, locate the epicenter of effort, and let it go. Keep letting it go until all of the squeezing becomes just space.... lots of space.

Change it. Doing something about the tension in your face is simple when you feel it, free it, and change it.... over and over again. Like changing any habit, this will take time and practice. Remember your face when listening to a friend, reading the news, waiting for an appointment, driving the car, or exercising. Feel the shape of tension and release it. Remember your face when going to sleep, waking up, and meditating. If your muscles feel locked in, let them soften and relax. Like any formative part of your personality, your original "resting" face won't completely disappear. But, over time, as you build awareness, your resting calm face will become an old friend too.

Replacing your tension habit with a restful alternative sets up a reward cycle that's mutually reinforcing. One obvious payoff is how "feeling, freeing, & changing" facial tension affects your sense of wellbeing. Observe the effect it has on your state of mind. This simple practice not only dislodges tension, it dissipates the emotional underpinnings. It's a kind of mindfulness that brings you into the here & now. Savor this place of no opinion, no agenda, no judgment, no history. When you look calm, you feel calm!

Do something about the tension in your resting face and do something for yourself. Just the ability to be at ease and alert at the same time improves relationships, performance, and communication. Being more relaxed and less stressed has a positive affect on your mental and physical health. Studies have shown that releasing excessive facial tension is beneficial for TMJ, headaches, eyestrain, anxiety, and sleep. If you don't have a grumpy, pouty, worried, confused, fearful demeanor, maybe you don't feel that way either! Actively cultivating a calm demeanor is a good strategy for facing the inevitable stresses of daily life with confidence, resiliency, and maybe some perspective. And, trading your RBF for a RCF makes you look better.

To find out more about the connection between your tense face and your emotional intelligence, check out my next blog: "Makes Sure Your Emotional Expression Makes The Right Impression."