Here's why you blush

Jennifer Lawrence

Kevin Winter/ Getty Images
Embarrassing moments happen to everyone, even JLaw.

The INSIDER Summary:

• Blushing is caused by blood vessels dilating in response to stress-fuelled adrenaline.
• Scientists still aren’t sure why it happens, but believe it could be an evolutionary nonverbal apology.
• There’s no real way to avoid it other than breathing deeply and letting it pass.

You call someone the wrong name, or accidentally shatter a glass on an unforgiving restaurant floor. Why does your face turn red when you least want attention, prompting further embarrassment? It just seems unfair.

Even weirder, blushing can also result from positive attention, like receiving a compliment.

Blushing is a phenomenon that’s completely unique to humans, and still a bit of a mystery. Here’s what we do know about why it happens.

What is blushing?

Blushing is a product of the sympathetic nervous system, the same one that activates a flight-or-fight adrenaline rush.

When you experience some kind of emotional stress, like the embarrassment of knocking over someone’s coffee, or the thrill of meeting an attractive person’s eyes, your body releases adrenaline. This causes blood vessels to dilate so that blood and oxygen can move faster through your system. The veins in your face also dilate, causing more blood to flow through them and giving your face its telltale redness.

Some people blush more easily than others, and some even suffer from a fear of blushing called erythrophobia.

Why do people blush?

Charles Darwin wrote that “Blushing is the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions,” and that remains true. Scientists still aren’t entirely sure why people blush, but there are some interesting theories out there.

Ray Crozier, an Honorary Professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University and author of numerous journal articles and books including “Understanding the Blush” and “Blushing and the Social Emotions,” writes that blushing has evolved as a sort of nonverbal apology that enforces social codes. If you do something embarrassing that breaks a norm, a flushed face indicates that you recognise your blunder.

Is there any way to avoid it?

Not really. The sympathetic nervous system is involuntary, meaning you can’t control it. Even people who can make themselves cry on cue can’t make themselves blush.

This fact could theoretically be used to avoid it: if you try to blush, you won’t be able to. Viktor Frankl, a psychotherapist who wrote the bestseller “Man’s Search For Meaning,” called this method “paradoxical intention” — deliberately practicing a neurotic habit as a way of identifying and removing it.

Still, that’s easier said than done. The only foolproof way to stop blushing is to take a few deep breaths and let the rush of blood and adrenaline pass. Feeling too embarrassed about your own embarrassment just makes everything worse.

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