There’s nothing more off-putting when you’re presenting than the feeling of heat spreading across your neck and cheeks and then the ensuing paranoia. We’ve brought together our favourite concepts around blushing, plus tips on how to manage it, seeing as it’s such a common question from clients.
Why do we blush?
Before we wish it away, let’s first acknowledge how fascinating blushing is! Back in 1872, in his studies of The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin describes blushing as ‘the most peculiar and human of all expressions’ (p310). Unfortunately, 150 years on we still have no definitive rationale for why humans blush.
We do know that the phenomenon of blushing seems connected to the ‘fight or flight’ response. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated due to a perceived threat, the hormone adrenaline is released which causes our blood vessels to dilate to allow oxygenated blood to flow faster around the body. The reddened appearance of blushing is a result of the blood vessels in our cheeks being wider and closer to the surface. However, this still doesn’t explain why some people blush and others don’t.
A fascinating theory…
A theory developed by Ray Crozier, a psychology professor at University of East Anglia is that blushing acts as a social signal. There are signs of emotional signalling elsewhere in the animal kingdom. For example, when a dog wants to show submission, it rolls over and displays its belly to diffuse tension. Blushing can be seen as something similar. When we feel threatened or embarrassed, our blushing signals to others that we feel we’re making a social blunder.
What’s more, there is scientific evidence to suggest that we actually like and trust people MORE who blush. Even without the science, think for a moment of your own experience. When you see someone blushing, it’s far more likely you feel warm thoughts about them and wish them well rather than judge them harshly for blushing. Being able to observe visually that a person feels self-conscious or embarrassed demonstrates their humanity and creates connection.
How can we stop blushing?
Despite the potential positive impacts of blushing, let’s be real, we’d still rather not do it.
Writing as a recovering ‘blusher’ myself, I can categorically say that the tendency to blush lessens when you are more comfortable in a situation. For example, I used to blush tremendously when presenting, to the point where I felt I might explode with heat (and mortification). However, now as a fairly seasoned presenter, I barely blush at all. With time and experience in whatever makes you blush, your level of comfort increases and therefore the ‘fight or flight’ response decreases.
The most radical option to reduce blushing is a surgical procedure called endothoracic sympathectomy. We do not recommend this!
Some practical steps to lessen blushing:
- The best thing to do is to ‘complete the stress cycle’ (Nagoski and Nagoski). If the fight or flight response has been triggered then we firstly need to deactivate this response. There are two good ways to do this. Firstly, release any nervous energy built up by moving the body (picture actors jumping around in the wings before a play). Or even better, take some slow, deep breaths into the belly, then long breaths out before you start something you find a little nerve-wracking. The slow breaths work well too if you are aware you’re already blushing.
- Focus back on your message. The worst thing you can do is worry about and be distracted by blushing. It causes your thoughts to spiral which in turn releases more cortisol and adrenaline which will make you stress and blush more! So consciously say to yourself ‘whatever’s going on in my body is normal and natural and I’m going to focus back on my message and power on’.
- Accept and embrace the blushing! It’s wasted energy to worry about it. Remember it actually endears people to us. The important thing here is that the kinder you are to yourself, the less you blush.
If we can view blushing as a natural phenomenon, possibly designed to make others like us more then let’s embrace it. The positive thing is that the more we do this, the more comfortable we feel and the less we actually blush.
And finally, no matter how hot we feel and how red we think we are, it always feels worse to us than it looks to our audience.