By Dr. Mercola
When your face gets red after you've made an embarrassing mistake or social faux pas, or because you've suddenly been made the center of attention or seen someone you think is attractive, it can feel like your body is turning on you, giving away your innermost feelings to the world.
But blushing is a perfectly natural phenomenon, one that may even offer benefits in how others perceive you, and more. The pink tinge to your cheeks is the result of a sympathetic nervous system response to stress, embarrassment or other strong emotions.
Your sympathetic nervous system activates your fight-or-flight response, releasing the hormone adrenaline which, along with speeding up your heart rate and breathing, also causes your blood vessels and the veins in your face to dilate, increasing blood flow and oxygen throughout your body while also leading to the characteristic pink hue in your cheeks known as blushing.1
Blushing is an involuntary response, which means technically there's no way to stop it. However, that doesn't mean you can't try. There are many strategies you can use to try to stop a blush from coming on, or make it fade quicker if it does. Before I get to those, though, you might want to reconsider your desire to stop it.
Blushing May Not Deserve Such a Bad Rap
Despite the fact that virtually everyone blushes, scientists are still trying to figure out its purpose. One theory is that it offers remedial value in cases when you’ve done something wrong. While facial redness can occur due to environmental factors like changes in temperature, hot or spicy foods or drinking alcohol, blushing is most often triggered by feelings of self-consciousness, often in situations when a person feels embarrassed or shameful. Writing in the journal Emotion, researchers pointed out:2
"Several theorists have stressed the functional properties of expressing embarrassment and shame, and have argued that these expressions may help restore the actor's public image after a mishap or transgression. That is, publicly conveying embarrassment or shame may signify the actor's recognition that she/he has committed a social or moral infraction, and regrets this."
Blushing fits right in to the "publicly conveying embarrassment" theme, and when researchers showed study participants pictures of people with or without a blush, they evaluated them more favorably on items such as sympathy and trustworthiness when they were blushing. "Although people often consider blushing to be an undesirable response," the researchers concluded, "our results showed that, in the context of transgressions and mishaps, blushing is a helpful bodily signal with face-saving properties."3
A similar study using a computer game in which participants played with a virtual opponent who defected, causing the participant to lose money, revealed that a blushing opponent was considered to be more trusted, judged more positively and viewed as less likely to defect again compared to a non-blushing opponent.4
People who are easily embarrassed (a hallmark of blushing) are even perceived as being more generous and altruistic.5 Ironically, part of blushing's remedial power is also what makes many people loathe it: the fact that you can't control it. Cardiff University professor Ray Crozier told The Guardian:6
"Blushing is normal and can be socially very useful, because it signals a non-verbal form of apology. If I knock over goods in a shop or stand on someone's foot, I can apologize for all those things but, if I blush, it shows people a) that I'm sorry and b) that I'm sincere, because you can't control it."
You're Probably Overestimating Your Blushing
If you're the type of person who blushes when someone even glances in your direction, it may help to know that you're probably overestimating how that blushing is perceived by others. Not only may it make you seem more trustworthy, as the previous studies showed, but research suggests that, among people who are fearful of blushing, it's common to overestimate the social costs of displaying a blush, along with the probability of blushing.7
In most cases, Mark Leary, psychology professor and director of the Interdisciplinary Behavioral Research Center at Duke University, told Today that blushing is "a reaction to undesired social attention and a way of deflecting it."8 Quite simply, if someone sees you blushing and appearing to be publically embarrassed, they're likely to look away.
However, it can be a vicious cycle, because even thinking about blushing can be enough to trigger it,9,10 and worrying about how you'll be perceived as a result can become debilitating for some people. While everyone blushes, certain people blush more frequently. You may be a more frequent blusher if you:11
- Are prone to anxiety or anxious about your public image
- Have low self-esteem
- Worry about people evaluating you negatively
- Feel an intense need to be socially accepted by others
- Are sensitive to crass statements or gross situations
The Atlantic also reported one man's story, who believes that frequent blushing has cost him relationships and promotions at work, highlighting how serious blushing can become for some people. He said:12
"I'm lucky to have a wonderful and understanding wife now, but for a long time blushing made it really hard to meet anyone. People think it's cute if you're a woman, but just off-putting if you're a man. I'm sure I'd be in a very different position in my career now if I didn't feel I had to avoid any kind of public scrutiny. Even speaking up in small meetings makes me uncomfortable and anxious. And when I blush my face actively hurts."
Trying to Blush May Help You Stop Blushing
If you want to stop blushing, ironically one of the best ways to do it is to try to blush. Leary suggests thinking to yourself to blush as hard as you can, which usually has the effect of making the opposite occur, perhaps because it takes your mind off whatever was triggering it in the first place.13
Psychologist Barbara Markway, author of “Painfully Shy: How to Overcome Social Anxiety and Reclaim Your Life,” also recommended this strategy, telling Today, “What you resist persists. The more you resist the blushing, the more likely it’s going to happen … [This] is a way to take the power out of it and put it more in perspective."14
So when you're at home or in private, try thinking about situations that would cause you to blush. Eventually, these triggers should become less problematic for you. Likewise, stop trying to fight it. The more you stress about blushing, the worse it's likely to become, as it will only heighten your fight-or-flight response. On the other hand, using relaxation strategies to calm down should help to quell a blush. This might include:
Progressive muscle relaxation
Autogenic training, in which you focus on physical sensations in your body
Interestingly, another way to stop the blush is to avoid eye contact with those around you. Eye contact has been shown to be a major blushing trigger, independent of embarrassment and anxiety. In one study, participants took a stressful quiz and disclosed personal information.
For the latter step, blushing increased when the participants made eye contact with the researcher as opposed to when he wore sunglasses or left the room.15 So, if you feel a blush coming on, look away from others in the room or even close your eyes for a moment to regroup.
Reframe the Way You Think About Blushing
Social anxiety and embarrassment are two major triggers for blushing, and the more you fear blushing, the worse it's likely to get. Instead, accept that blushing is normal, natural and makes others view you as charmingly human, vulnerable and even endearing. If you're feeling self-conscious, rather than apologizing for your blushing to those around you, simply make a lighthearted statement like, "My cheeks easily get red, it often happens to me" and then move on to a new topic.
While there is a surgical option to stop blushing known as endoscopic thoracic surgery (ETS), which involves cutting nerves to keep blood vessels in your face closed, it comes with serious risks, including nerve damage, sweating and infection.16 A far less invasive option is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is designed to help you deal more effectively with situations that fill you with anxiety. It can be helpful if blushing is interfering with your daily life, especially in helping you to stop putting yourself down because of it.
Ultimately, while some of us blush more easily than others, virtually everyone is familiar with the feeling that comes when you feel your cheeks getting red. Recognizing that blushing isn't a poor reflection on you, but rather just a physiological response — even one that may put you in a more favorable light — is the key to keeping it from overpowering your life.