Abolish Acne Anxiety With This Weird Theory Of Emotion

Abolish Acne Anxiety With This Weird Theory Of Emotion

You know the feeling, the uncomfortable jittery thing in your chest. You get it when you are outside and feel like people are looking at your skin. Sometimes when you even think about going out. Sometimes it’s so bad that you stop at the front door, close it and go back to your room. It’s called anxiety, and it comes with acne.

Luckily for you, experiments done by a renegade psychologist at the end of the 19th century turned the conventional wisdom on emotions upside down. And we can use these results to give anxiety a swift kick on the butt, freeing you to live your life.

All the credit for this post goes to Richard Wiseman and his latest book Rip It Up. I’m shamelessly borrowing from the book. And I highly recommend you to buy and read the book.

Conventional view of emotions – upside down

In “Rip It Up” Wiseman argues that, when it comes to emotions we’ve put the cart before the horse. Both common sense and conventional wisdom state that behavior follows emotion. That is, you feel anxious and that causes jittery behavior. Or that being happy causes you to smile.

This conventional wisdom also says that behavior follows thoughts. Following this many self-help books claim that you can improve yourself by thinking ‘better’ thoughts. Want to be confident? Just think positively about yourself.

Some people believe this conventional theory of emotion is upside down. The first one to propose this was psychologist William James, over 100 years ago. James stated that emotions follow behavior, or that you feel happy because you are smiling. Modern psychology agrees that behavior causes emotion, but it’s now believed that it’s more of a two way street. So that you smile because you are happy, but you also become happier because you smile.

This upside down theory of emotions feels weird at the first blush. That said, it’s been proven in several experiments, some of which you can try at home.

  • Pretending to measure electrical activity of facial muscles psychologist James Lard stuck electrodes on volunteers’ faces. Using a cover story that emotions can affect the measurements, he asked the participants to monitor and report their emotions as the experiment proceeded. Lard asked the participants to create variety of facial expression, such as happy, angry and sad faces. As they were making each expression Lard asked the participants to rate their emotions. The participants felt significantly happier when they forced their face into smiles, and significantly angrier when they were frowning. Using different cover stories several other researchers have confirmed these findings. Forced facial expressions create real emotions.
  • Try it for yourself. Force a grin on your face by pull the corners of your mouth towards your ears. Make the smile as wide as possible, and try to ensure that your cheeks move upwards and create some wrinkling at the base of your eyes. Finally lift your eyelids a bit. Hold that expression for 20 seconds (yes, I know it feels ridiculous). Relax your face and think about how you feel.
  • Paul Ekman from University of California took these results a step further. He wanted to find out whether real and ‘fake’ emotions have the same effect on the body. Not surprisingly, real emotions caused measurable changed in the body. Such as anger increasing heart rate and happiness slowing it down. Ekman got the exact same physical reactions when he elicited the emotions with facial expressions. He showed that behaving as if you are experiencing an emotion not only influences how you feel, but also has a powerful effect on your body.
  • In 2006 researchers put this theory to the ultimate test. Using MRI machines they scanned the brains as the participants created emotional facial expressions. The same parts of the brain were activated regardless of whether the emotion was real or the person was acting as if he was experiencing the emotion.
  • Laughter clubs are yet another testimony to this ‘As If’ theory. In laughter clubs people get together and laugh, or fake laughter. Why? Because it makes them happier. Take the next 20 seconds to test this. Laugh, just fake the biggest belly laughter you can manage. I just did it and 5 minutes later still feel the warm afterglow of happiness.

This As If principle is not limited to faking facial expressions. Singing and dancing are incompatible with negative emotions, except if you find yourself among the audience in a karaoke bar. Several studies have found that singing makes people happier. Same goes for dancing. Similarly walking with a ‘spring in your step’ makes you feel happier.

Singing makes us happy
Several studies show that both singing and dancing make us feel happy.

William James: “Immobility will prevents emotion”

But there’s also a dark side to this As If theory, it predicts that limited mobility and facial expressions limits emotional experiences.

  • In 1960s psychologist George Hohmann studied emotional experiences in paraplegic patients. He found that the higher up the damage in the spinal cord, the less able the patients were to move around, and the less likely they were to experience emotions.
  • At least a handful of studies have shown that Botox injections limit emotional experiences. Botox temporarily paralyzes facial muscle and thus limits facial expressions. One study compared two groups of women. One group had a Botox injection, the other group got a filler injection. Both procedures had similar effect on physical appearance but only Botox limited facial expressions. Both groups were then shown emotional video clips. The Botox group showed significantly weaker emotional response to the videos.

While the experiments I’ve described so far don’t conclusively prove that James’ theory , I hope they are enough for you to open your mind to it.

Mr. Angry and Mr. Happy

Before we start talking about anxiety we have to talk psychologist Stanley Schachter and how he included body sensations to this As If theory of emotion.

Let’s start with how the conventional wisdom sees things and contrast it to the As If theory.

  • Conventional wisdom: See a lion -> become afraid -> start sweating and stomach lurches
  • As If theory: See a lion -> start sweating and stomach lurches -> become afraid

The key difference here is that the conventional wisdom sees body sensations (sweating, stomach lurching) as responses to emotion, whereas the As If theory says it’s the other way around. Little bit later I’ll explain why this is important.

Schachter created a devious experiment to test the As If theory. Under a clever cover story he gave people adrenaline injections and then asked them to wait in an adjoining room. There was also a research assistant in the room, pretending to be another research subject.

The assistant played two roles, Mr. Happy and Mr. Angry. Mr. Happy was excitedly jumping around the room, doing hula-hoops and other ways behaving as he had the time of his life. Mr. Angry on the other hand became agitated when asked to fill a questionnaire with offending questions, such as inquiring about the number of extramarital affairs his mother had.

As expected, the people who had spent Mr. Happy felt strangely delighted. In contrast, the people who had seen Mr. Angry fuming about the questions felt significantly angrier.

This experience shows the role of context in emotions. In both cases the participants had the exact same physical reaction in the body. The adrenaline injection increased heart rate and caused sweating. But given different context, Mr. Angry vs. Mr. Happy, the brain interpreted the reaction differently and produced different emotions. Little bit later we’ll see how this is relevant.

How to boot anxiety out of your life

Now that we finally have enough theoretical understanding, we’ll get to the meat of this post. How to deal with acne anxiety.

Let’s start with how I think anxiety happens.

  • Triggering event. The triggering event could be seeing your acne in the mirror, or simply being in a public place where a lot of people can see your skin.
  • Physical reaction, the same as adrenaline injection in the above study. Your heart rate increases, palms may sweat or you may feel other signs of anxiety as the body gears towards the fight or flight reaction.
  • Behavior. You start to behave anxiously. Perhaps turning away from people so they can’t see your face.
  • Emotion. The brain interprets the physical reaction and your behavior and decides you are anxious.

Here are some simple exercises and tips for diffusing anxiety and helping you to feel relaxed.

Reinterpret the physical reaction

The next time you feel signs of anxiety, stop and think about it. Remind yourself that this is just a conditioned response from your body. You’ve been through this thing so many times that your body has been conditioned to respond in a certain way.

Research on panic attack patients shows that just getting them to reinterpret the physical symptoms differently quells panic attack. Studies have found this approach more effective than relaxation therapy or drugs.

Learn to relax

Relaxation is the antidote to anxiety, and acting as if you are relaxed helps you to feel relaxed. You need to teach yourself how your body feels when it’s relaxed, and to learn how to relax it on command.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Do nothing for 2 minutes. Try it out and see how you feel afterwards. Good relaxation practice.
  • Deep breathing exercises. Breathe in for the count of 5, hold for the count of 7, and breathe out for the count of 7. Practice until it becomes natural and easy to do, and use this in anxiety causing situations.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation is more involved but effective way to teach your body how to relax.

Here’s also a video that guides you through a progressive muscle relaxation exercise.


Finally, here are two more relaxation exercises, with audio guides.

It’s really, really important you learn to relax ‘on command’. Because you have to reteach your brain how to behave in anxiety producing situations. When you learn to relax, you can use the skill to diffuse anxiety. As you do it over and over you’ll eventually break the conditioning, freeing yourself from anxiety.

Change your behavior

Following the As If principle, change how you behave in anxiety producing situations. Don’t try to hide yourself. Stand confidently, with your back straight and pull your shoulders back. Plaster a fake smile on your face. Don’t examine the patters on the floor, look up.

I know it feels fake. But behaving confidently is not compatible with feeling anxiety, and little by little your emotions will align with your behavior.

Control your breathing

Another way to fight anxiety is by controlling our breathing. We usually don’t pay that much attention to how we breathe, unless we are doing physical exercise. We tend to think that it’s an automated process, that is out of our control. But maybe we should change the way we look at breathing?

Breathing affects our mood more than we think, from our stress levels to blood pressure and even our immune functionality. Our breathing pattern sends signals to our body, telling us how to we feel.  It tells us if we are afraid, anxious, nervous or even happy. Different feelings even tend to have different breathing patterns. By paying attention to our breathing, we can control the signals we send out to our body.

Most of us actually don’t breathe the right way. We spend too much time sitting, which forces our bodies and organs into unnatural positions. As a result we tend to breathe through our chest, when we should be breathing through our stomach. Only the latter way fully inflates our lungs. Some of us also tend to breathe through our mouth, while the correct way would be to breathe through our nose. 

But don’t worry, this is something that can be changed. Correct breathing patterns are something we can actively train, and all of us should give it a try since it usually doesn’t come naturally. But especially if you are fighting with negative emotions, you could benefit from auto-controlling your breathing. If you are interested in trying out different breathing techniques, have a look at this thorough breathing guide.

When we are anxious or nervous we often feel we can’t breath. If we flip the coin, maybe we could stop feeling anxious and nervous by breathing correctly?


Feeling ashamed of yourself is one of the biggest reasons behind acne anxiety. We tend to feel ashamed by our red pimples and acne scars and many of us prefer to stay inside instead of going out with friends during an irksome breakout. But as we all know, hiding from the problem is usually not the best way to tackle this situation. We’ve written before about the importance of accepting your acne, but here’s also a simple exercise that helps you to accept yourself.

Stand in front of a mirror. Adopt confident posture by straightening your back and pulling your shoulders back. Then smile. I know it’s hard, but do it anyway. After you’ve managed something resembling of a smile, give yourself the thumbs up sign and nod your head (as if agreeing) as you look at your reflection.

Feeling stupid already? Of course you do, but do it anyway. Here’s why. Simone Schnall and James Laird from Clark University found that people remember more positive memories as they smile and stand in a confident posture. Frowning and stooped over posture brings up more negative memories. And you want to see yourself in positive light, hence the confident posture and smile.

Similarly, Jesse Chandler from the University of Michigan asked people to read a short story about a person while either giving the thumbs up sign or with a middle finger raised. Those giving thumbs up found the person in the story far more likable than those giving him the finger. Finally, you are more likely to agree with something if you are nodding at the same time.

So yes, you look stupid while doing this, but I think I’ve given you a good reason to do so.

Conclusion: Fake it and you’ll make it

Anxiety and stress are among the most destructive consequences of acne. They can literally paralyze your spirit, forcing you to watch as your life slips through your fingers.

In this post we looked at an unconventional theory of emotion, and how to use it to diffuse anxiety from your life. This As If theory states that emotions follow behavior. Want to feel happy? Smile. Want to get rid of anxiety? Teach your body how to relax. Lot of research on psychology says it doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that.

The real question is, are you going to try this? Or it’s just too stupid to even try?

I’d love to hear your thought and comments below!

About Me

Hi, I am Acne Einstein(a.k.a. Seppo Puusa). I'm a bit of a science nerd who is also passionate about health. I enjoy digging through medical journals for acne treatment gems I can share here. You can read more about my journey through acne and how I eventually ended up creating this.


9 thoughts on “Abolish Acne Anxiety With This Weird Theory Of Emotion”

  1. Hey Seppo,
    Yes i am definitely going to try this amd the relaxation videosde me feel so calm!:) i think i will experiment and try to do the fake smiling for 21 day and hopefully ill get great results!:)
    Thanks for sharing

    • Happy to help! Do let me know how it works for you. I know for sure it works ‘in the moment’, but I’m not yet sure if this can create a more permanent change. I believe it can when you condition your brain to react differently, but I haven’t seen any research on that and the book didn’t talk about long term effects.

  2. I also remember reading the way you go to sleep has an effect on the kind of mood you wake up in and the kind of dreams you have.. Say if you go to bed angry, you wake up in a bad mood and etc.. Id remember where i read it, but its interesting..
    This blog came at the time i needed it the most.!:) i like the way you explain everything and the readons of why it will work!!
    I have decided i want to try to be more positive, even though its not always easy to do! I still have a good bit to go
    In learning more about being and finding good in situations, but i learned much from this blog and will read it often to remind myself! Lol thanks again

    • It’s plausible that your emotional state in the evening affects your dreams. Some say that dreams are the way the brain processes what happened during the day. Going beyond that I remain somewhat skeptical.

  3. Hi, I was actually reading thelovevitamin and found your response. This actually make a lot of sense. I have terrible anxiety, mine is more related to speaking in front of people, social anxiety sometimes as well, and I have been trying to get rid of it the past few years. I was recently thinking back to a time when I did not have as much anxiety towards this, and I think back to one of my high school years where I all of a sudden had confidence. I know I didn’t actually feel more confident inside, but I just decided to be outgoing, thus I wasn’t as nervous after. Everyone kept saying wow you’re like a different person. However, the past few years it has gotten worse again, and all I can think is I’m more conditioned now to reacting in anxious way, so even if I pretend to act confident a lot of the time it will take much longer for my body to learn how to react in another way. Whereas in high school, I was younger and it was much easier to do that because I didn’t have years of anxiety to confront. Anyways, just wanted to share my little story. I believe this has a lot of truth, but I think if somebody has had anxiety for awhile, learning to fully relax will take awhile.
    Thanks for the article : )

    • Thanks for sharing your story Sarah! Sorry about my late reply. I took most of the weekend away from my computer.

      I agree with you that making this change is not so easy, and that it takes some time. I think a lot of the time we’ve just conditioned the brain to respond in a certain way, as you mentioned. Good news here is that you can condition it to respond differently.

      In the book Prof. Wiseman talks about interpreting anxiety symptoms in your body differently. Instead of seeing them as cause for anxiety, try to think about them differently. For example, you could remind yourself that it’s just your brain responding to old, conditioned habits. Or that it’s your brain reminding you to look sharp and put your best foot forward. That approach has been more effective in anxiety patients than relaxation or anti-anxiety drugs.

      I really recommend you check out the book. This short post doesn’t really do justice for it.

  4. Seppo,
    I find your website very much intriguing. I have a long story on my acne, but cutting it short, the last treatment I had being the anti-biotics has made it much much worse and out of control. that’s when I started researching online and now I only wish I had seen your website prior to trying the medication. before I talk about the above article, going through your website, I couldn’t find out how you helped your skin after becoming worse post anti-biotics? I just purchased the Exposed Skincare extended kit 2 days ago. I have also booked my homeopath Dr visit this week to check if I have some sort of gut infection…let me know what you think. These 2 initiatives have helped me reduce my anxiety a bit. But as you mentioned in your article above, I hesitate when I want to see friends, and even my boyfriend!! I argue more with him as I’m sensitive now about how he may see me and I find the smallest thing in his behaviour to relate it in my mind to my acne situation. I have been fed up with this for the past 2 years! And now that even the antibiotics which Drs had told me would help has not only turned me down but has made the situation worse!
    one last thing, just like Sarah I’ve noticed during this time that I have anxiety when talking to more than 2 people at a time in public. I’m constantly thinking about my accent (+now my acne) and my brain keeps telling me that you are going to screw up with your accent kicking in. It’s caused me anxiety in my social life around people I know less. Do you suggest any books which may help me improving my self esteem and reducing anxiety in public?
    I very much appreciate your informative articles. I have not found a single acne-related website on the net which is as good and fact-oriented as your. All the best 🙂 -btw I did have a real smile on my face. I’ll fake the next one 🙂

    • Glad to hear that you like the site, Bella.

      To answer your question, I never experienced my skin getting worse after antibiotics. Perhaps I was lucky that way, or perhaps it’s because I’ve used antibiotics for acne only once or twice.

      What can you do in your situation? This is hard to say since, I imagine, there can be several reasons why your skin got worse after antibiotics. They can certainly have a negative effect on gut bacteria, but there can also be other reasons (at least I assume there are, but I don’t know for sure).

      If I were in your shoes I would try probiotic supplements or fermented foods. I would also follow the advice from this article: Is Your Acne Caused By Gut Issues? 3 Simple Ways To Know. Those tips can help you to figure out whether your gut is working fine or not.

      This blog, and my whole approach, is based on science and rational advice. If you ask me about homeopaths.. well.. you may not like my answer.

      The thing with homeopathy is that it’s based on utterly ridiculous principles. It’s NOT, as many people, believe some sort of natural or herbal medicine. It’s based on the idea that the more you dilute the medicine the stronger it gets. Common homeopathic remedies are diluted to the point that’s about the equivalent of dropping one drop of ‘active ingredient’ to the entire Pacific Ocean. It sounds ridiculous, but I’m not kidding about it. I’m not even going to get started on how they choose the ‘active ingredients’, a process that’s equally diluted of reason as their medicines are of active ingredients. It’s nothing but magic water.

      Of course it doesn’t matter how ridiculous something is if it works. But homeopathy has been tested countless times.. to the point where NIH has spent several million dollars on trials on homeopathy. Better quality studies invariably show homeopathy has no effect beyond placebo. The proponents of homeopathy will tell you many studies show it’s effective, but all the positive studies are low quality studies without proper controls. That means they are subject to bias and invariably produce false positive results – like similar studies done with prescrition drugs do.

      Of course the homeopath can offer you some sensible advice about diet, exercise, sleep and stress reduction, but I wouldn’t pay anything for homeopathic ‘remedies’.

      Another problem with most homeopaths and other alt-med practioners is that they almost ALWAYS find something wrong with you – even if there’s nothing wrong with you. Maybe he is correct with his diagnosis and maybe he’s not. The problem is you never know because the recommendations are not based on scientific evidence. They are based on anecdotes and personal experience. And those things are always subject to the myriad of biases and cognitive fallacies all humans suffer from.

      Anyway.. sorry about the rant.. the way many alternative medicine practitioners take advantage of people gets me really worked.


      What you can do about anxiety? That’s a difficult question that I have no good answer to. I really don’t understand well enough how the brain works in creating these emotions.

      I think partially it’s about habits. You habitually react to some situations with anxiety and stress. In such a case you need to teach your brain better habits. So when you find yourself being anxious use the techniques outlined in this post (also see this other post: Study Shows How To Breathe Yourself Happy). If you can get yourself in a more relaxed state then your brain should learn about it. So in time you might find that such situations don’t make you anxious anymore. That’s really the best I can say. More than that you have to talk to someone who is more familiar with these things.

  5. I forgot to mention that your above article was new to me and very very interesting. I will definately use it in many situations. It reminds me that just the last week I did have some sort of fake smile on my face (and in my head I thought am I acting rediculous) and being in a professional work environment like mine it could look stupid 🙂 BUT although that day I had a tough time with my acne situation this helped my mind away and my day was a happy one!
    Looking forward to see all your other articles. I’m still exploring your website.

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