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Does Botox Equal Happiness?

By James Broida
Posted On Jun 21, 2010
In the physical world, sometimes a more easy going attitude may be as much a phenomenon of the body as it is of the mind.

Words James Broida

Being a man, I am far less likely to undergo any sort of cosmetic procedure than a woman. About a tenth as likely, to be precise.

I say this only as a kind of introduction, a way of expressing that my experience with cosmetic surgery of any kind—and its psychological impact—was completely new. I had no previous reference point.

Nonetheless, several months ago I decided to undergo my first cosmetic procedure. It was not a major procedure by any turn of the imagination, but rather an introductory, noninvasive procedure, the kind of subtle change that many people interested in cosmetic surgery begin with. In my case it was Botox, with a dash of Juvéderm.

Getting Physical

I have what are know as the “elevens.” These are two vertical lines between the eyebrows, a consequence in my case of decades of hard thinking, or scowling, depending on your point of view. And in my case these were more than lines. More like twin Grand Canyons.

Over the years I wondered if my knotted brows would ever relax. Many times I massaged them, but to no avail. They remained stubbornly crunched up.

Then I decided it was time, and visited a cosmetic surgeon who, with surprising ease, put a little Botox into each muscle and a little Juvéderm filler into each crevice. Bingo. What years of attempted meditation coupled with circular finger massages could not accomplish transpired almost immediately. The tiny muscular fists on my forehead flattened out, and the twin fissures became two thin lines, hardly noticeable.

Psych Central

But that was just the physical part. The psychological part was far more interesting.

According to the theory of psychosomatic medicine—which is the basis of biofeedback therapy—all of our experiences have a physical as well as psychological component. They are inextricably linked.

When you are dreaming at night, for example, you are emitting alpha brain waves and rapid eye movements. If you are not displaying these physical signs, you cannot be dreaming.

The same physical principle applies to stress. If you are physically relaxed, you cannot be mentally stressed. In biofeedback, they use this principle to get people over their anxieties. The way it works is that you are trained to relax in the face something that normally stresses you. If you can stay relaxed, your anxiety should disappear. If you can utterly relax when they put a snake in the box next to you, you will not react with fear or stress. You’ll just keep taking those long, calm breaths.

“From the muscle researchers has come the thesis that anxiety is incompatible with relaxation,” writes Dr. Barbara Brown, PhD in her book about biofeedback, New Mind, New Body. “Changes in states of consciousness which accompany the release from muscle tension no doubt…help alleviate anxiety states.”

So, if my muscles are relaxed, then I must be relaxed, too!

Well, maybe. The first question I had was: What happens to the tension that used to go to my brow? My life hadn’t changed, after all, so I still faced the same stressful conditions.

One answer is the water in the dam theory, that if you block the pressure in one place, it emerges somewhere else. A study in the most recent issue of the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology suggests that Botox may actually cause extra wrinkles. The reason, according to author Dr. David Becker, is that the muscular expressions masked by Botox will find a way to express itself in muscle groups that have not been injected.

“Paralysis of a set of muscles might lead to recruitment of other muscle groups in an attempt to reproduce the conditioned activity being blocked—resulting in more prominent muscle activity in adjacent regions,” Becker explained in the article.

No Worries

I watched myself carefully. What happened when I faced a wave of stress, like when someone at work enraged me?

My first feeling was sort of like what I imagine people who are missing limbs feel. I wanted to get mad, but it was like I was missing the words to express it. I would lift a finger about to yell at someone, then take a breath and calm down. Did I squint more now that I didn’t crunch my forehead and bark? Maybe a little, but at least at first I just stopped being so upset, and just sort of shook my head and walked away.

“When you have these creases from years of worrying and [the muscles] won’t unfurl, you don’t get a sense of relaxation,” says Dr. Jody Schwartz, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist who specializes in self esteem and anxiety relief. “Botox relaxes the muscles, and should relax how you feel. So there is a relationship between the two…. I don’t think that’s what the drug is meant to do [but] I think it does help.” Schwartz is quick to point out that something like Botox will never solve the problems that cause the body to stress. But Schwartz, who teaches Yoga and how to breathe to reduce anxiety, is a big believer that the way we feel mirrors our actions in the physical world.

“I often tell people that when they want to cheer up, when they walk down the street, they should smile. Smile at someone and they will smile back,” she says. “This generates a feeling of great happiness.”

Well, then. If a smile generates happiness, my newly happy face can generate happiness, too. And that doesn’t take into account the main reason that cosmetic procedures make people happy—by making them feel more confident, and better about themselves. I will leave that deeper psychological construct for another time. For now, I was happy – yes, happy —that instead of scowling like Ebenezer Scrooge, I could take a more Bobby McFerrin attitude. Don’t worry, be happy.