Emotional Regulation and the Body

Key Points

  • Changing the way we stand and the way we move can alter our emotions.
  • Changing our facial expressions can alter our emotions.
  • Changing our breathing patterns can positively affect our emotional experiences.

Some Theory...

A fake smile produces real positive emotions

  • In a seminal psychological study, one group of subjects were instructed to watch cartoons while holding a pen between their teeth, they had to make sure that the pen does not touch their lips. By following these instructions, they produced a fake smile.
  • A second group of subjects were instructed to watch the same cartoons while holding a pen between their lips and ensuring that the pen did not touch their teeth. By following these instructions, they produced a fake frown.
  • When the two groups rated how funny the cartoons were, the ratings of the smiling group were higher.
  • The fact that the smiling group found the cartoons funnier meant that the smiling group was in a better mood, the fake smile improved their mood!
  • Link to the study

The relation between body and emotions explained

  • The James-Lange theory of emotions argues that emotions are interpretations of our physiological state. For example, the emotion of fear is the outcome of the following process:
    • (1) We perceive threat,
    • (2) The perception of threat increases our heart beat and makes us shiver,
    • (3) Our brain interprets the increase in heart beat and the shivering as symptoms of fear and the emotion of fear is generated.
  • Because physiological processes precede emotional processes, creating new physiological processes in our body generates new emotional processes. Moreover, stopping physiological processes stops the emotions that generate from them.
    • Take away from fear the symptoms of fear and you stop being afraid.
      Lev Vygotsky in Educational Psychology

Evidence for the relation between physiological/motor processes and emotions

  • Relation between our posture and the hormones released in our body
    • "when people held postures of strength and pride for one minute, they actually increased measures of testosterone, a hormone related to status-enhancing behaviors, but when people held their body in a shame-related posture, they underwent increased levels of cortisol (Carney, Cuddy, & Yap, 2010)" (Keltner et al., 2013, p. 130).
  • Relation between breathing and anxiety
    • "several laboratory studies have found that highly anxious individuals who engage in patterns of deep breathing and exhalation experience reductions in anxiety (Brown & Gerbag, 2005)" (Keltner et al., 2013, p. 130).
  • Relation between facial muscles and emotions
    • Women who receive botox injections become unable to move certain muscles in their faces.
    • Given that these muscles are involved in smiling, frowning, and other expressions of emotions, we can speculate that botox injections can reduce our ability to experience certain emotions.
    • Findings from Davis et al.'s (2010) study have partly confirmed the speculation.
    • When a mild emotional video clip was shown to both women who received botox injections and women who have not, women who received botox injections exhibited a diminished emotional response.
    • However, when the video clips were intensely emotional, both women with and without botox injections exhibited a similar level of emotional response.
    • Link to the study


Given that changes to our posture, our movement, and our facial expressions alter our emotional state, we can learn how to use our body to move from one emotion to another. Our body is one of our primary tools for emotional regulation.

Practical Suggestions

  • When the classroom energy is low, do a "pass a smile" circle activity. Students will stand in a circle and each student looks at the student standing next to her/him and smiles. This exercise will help improve the mood of students.

  • Keep an eye on the posture of students and remind them to avoid the "depressed" posture and walk with a straight posture.

  • Do dance activities with students where they can playfully practice different power postures, holding a power posture for a minute energizes students and improves their mood.

  • Share with students the healthy effects of deep breathing and regularly practice deep breathing with students, especially when they seem to be anxious.



Oatley, K., Keltner, D., & Jenkins, J. M. (2013). Understanding emotions (Chapter 5) . Blackwell publishing.