Why Losing Your Pain Face Makes You Hurt Less.

Discomfort is all part of the game for CrossFitters. Pushing the limits of performance often means a departure from the comfort zone. And while 'pain or 'discomfort' isn't the best (or only) way of measuring training success, challenging the margins of our capabilities pushes our capabilities higher.

And this discomfort is often accompanied by the 'pain face' - the outward expression of inner hurt.

But what if we could reduce our perception of discomfort (hurt less) by changing our face?

To understand this concept, we have to flip our understanding of facial expressions. We know that when we're happy we smile, when we're sad we cry, when we're hurting we grimace. But what you might not know is when we smile it makes us happy. When we cry it makes us sad. When we grimace, we hurt more. Our facial expressions are not just a window into our feelings and emotions, our facial expressions actually SHAPE our emotions.

The research into this phenomenon is considerable, and forms the field of Proprioceptive Psychology. This research has found that among other things:

  • People who were asked to hold a pencil between their teeth without it touching their lips (i.e. a forced smile) were immediately happier than those who had to squeeze the pencil between their lips (i.e. a forced frown).
  • People who activated 'smiling muscles' (without actually being told to smile) found basic maths problems easier than those who activated 'frowning muscles'.
  • People preferred items they watched moving vertically on a computer screen (causing them to nod their head 'yes') over items they watched moving horizontally on a computer screen (causing them to shake their head 'no').
  • People who suffered from facial neuromuscular disorders which prevented them from smiling suffered higher rates of depression.
  • People who had botox injected into the 'frown muscles' (causing these muscles to relax) had reduced rates of depression, with reduced frowning quietening the part of the brain that amplifies negative emotions.

So how is this useful for athletes who experience self imposed pain and discomfort during exercise? Well, it tell us that by showing pain we'll feel more pain. And that by 'taking the pain off our face', we'll feel less pain. Feel less pain, and you're also more likely to get in to a flow state.

So next time it starts to hurt, remember that you are completely in control of your facial expressions. Take the pain off your face - it might just help squeeze out those extra few reps.

Dan Williams's picture

Dan Williams

Dan Williams is the Founder and Director of Range of Motion. He is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and Exercise Scientist with a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science. Dan is a CrossFit Coach (at CF Games Level) and four time CrossFit Regionals Athlete.