Hot cheeks, face on fire, you know what’s next: A bright red blush that unmasks all the turbulence inside your head.
All of us blush at least occasionally, but it can be distressing if it happens too easily or often. Some people turn delicately pink, while others blush scarlet from the tips of their ears to the bottom of their neck.
Blushing is a reaction to undesired social attention and a way of deflecting it, said Mark Leary, psychology professor and director of the Interdisciplinary Behavioral Research Center at Duke University.
“If you see somebody who is blushing and they look nervous and they’re smiling goofily and they avert their gaze, you can’t continue to stare at them,” Leary told TODAY. “It makes the observer uncomfortable to watch somebody do this.”
Most people think blushing is a reaction to embarrassment, but you can get red just by opening presents while people are looking at you, Leary noted.
Certain personalities are more vulnerable. You’ll get red more often if you are:
- concerned about being negatively evaluated by other people
- anxious about your public image
- sensitive to “gross and crass things”
- in need of social acceptance by other people
- someone with low self-esteem
“For somebody who is already prone to anxiety… they’re more likely to think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’” said Barbara Markway, a psychologist in Jefferson City, Missouri, and author of “Painfully Shy: How to Overcome Social Anxiety and Reclaim Your Life.”
Blushing is an automatic body response that’s hard to control, but there are some ways to ease the reaction:
1. Fight a blush with a blush
Studies have shown that when you feel a blush coming on, you can make it go away by consciously trying to make your cheeks redden.
Think “I want to blush as hard as I can” and try to bear down a bit, Leary recommended. He doesn’t know why it works, but it could be that bearing down affects the flow of blood to your face, or that it gets your mind off the unwanted social attention.
2. Don’t look at other people
Averting your gaze for a moment and not making direct eye contact when you’re blushing can help, Leary noted.
He once did an experiment where all subjects knew they were being stared at. Some of the people doing the staring wore sunglasses, others did not. The subjects only blushed when they could see the staring eyes.
3. Invite the symptoms
Set aside a few minutes a day and try to make yourself blush, Markway recommended. Go ahead and conjure up situations that usually make you red. It’s similar to exposure therapy, where you confront your fears in a safe setting.
“What you resist persists,” Markway said. “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.”
You learn the anxiety runs out of steam and you can’t blush anymore. Markway had a patient try this approach and he eventually found he was blushing less frequently.
“The main thing he learned is that he didn’t need to be devastated by it,” she noted.
4. Develop a one sentence explanation
Have a quick, light explanation ready to go whenever you feel a blush coming on, Markway advised.
You can say, “Oh, I just tend to get red. That just happens to me” or “It’s hot in here, I feel my face getting red.”
That way, you explain your blush and stop being so inwardly focused. Move on by asking the other person a question about himself.
5. Diminish its power
Avoidance is a big problem with any kind of anxiety symptom, like blushing, Markway said.
“If you have this tendency to blush, are you going to keep it from doing the things you want to do?” she asked.
“If you stop doing things that you value and care about because of the blushing, you’re giving it too big of a place in your life.”
She tells patients to ask themselves these two questions:
What are the odds of blushing happening? People with anxiety tend to overestimate the odds.
If it does happen, how bad is it going to be? In most cases, it’s not going to be as bad as you think.
6. Be compassionate with yourself
Notice what you’re saying to yourself when you blush. Stop if your default mode is to give into thoughts such as, “This is so stupid” or “I’m such a loser,” Markway said.
Instead, train yourself to think, “My body is just wired this way and it might be embarrassing, but it’s not my fault.”
7. Realize that others appreciate your blush
Most people think they look bad when they blush, but research shows blushing can help to repair your image if you’ve done something silly, Leary said.
One study found people who turned red after making a mistake or social blunder were considered more trustworthy and judged more positively than those who did not.
“It’s OK to blush. In fact, it’s necessary to signal that I care what you think about me and I realize I’ve made a mistake,” Leary said. “A person who never ever blushed — you couldn’t trust them. They’re not sensitive to what other people think.”
“We think that people are going to reject us, but it can be endearing,” Markway echoed.
8. Realize it may get easier with age
Your sensitivity to what other people think and being the center of attention goes down as you get older, partly through experience, Leary noted.
You know how to handle those kinds of situations better than when you were a teenager. There are also fewer people whose opinion you care about when you’re 60 than when you’re 16, he said.
9. Try acceptance
It’s not a quick fix, but accept that blushing will come and go, and this is just what your body does, Markway said.
If blushing is interfering with your life, try the Anxiety and Depression Association of America as a first step to get help.