Today I appeared on BBC Radio Nottingham as part of a discussion about blushing. The BBC decided to cover it after the tragic story of 20 year old man called Brendan who committed suicide because he felt unable to cope with his uncontrollable and chronic blushing any longer.
Do you feel that you blush too much, or do you know someone who does? You might find the following useful…
Why do we blush?
There can be several reasons why we blush. Firstly, it’s important to rule out any underlying medical reasons why we blush which may not be related– there’s a condition called rosacea which causes chronic facial flushing, and some women going through the menopause can blush a deep red when they have a hot flush.
However, the blushing that is related to nervousness and anxiety occurs because of a physiological response within our nervous system to a situation which we find embarrassing or causes us some social discomfort.
Although for the significant minority of people for whom chronic and uncontrollable blushing is terribly real and a traumatizing thing to go through it’s actually our emotional response to the fact that we blush that causes the blushing to worsen or continue. This is because the more we worry about that fact that we’re going to blush then the more our brain will send messages to our nervous system that we are in some kind of danger. Our nervous system evolved at a time when daily life was very much about survival – we hunted and our brain had to facilitate a big response in our nervous system if, for example, we were being chased by a tiger. And even though for a large proportion of people in the world, certainly in the western world, this isn’t the case any more, our nervous system can’t tell the difference between our own emotional response to blushing – you know the kind of thing – “What will people think of me? What will they say? I really like that girl over there but I’ve got no chance if I start blushing…” and so on and so on. This fear is received by our nervous system and can’t be separated out from our fear of being chased by a tiger – in essence we become our own tiger! Indeed, many people blush when there’s an element of suprise – someone might ask them a question or they might say or do something that they weren’t expecting and the key factor in those things are that they aren’t in control, and not being in control – we weren’t expecting this.
Just recently, there’s been research also done on the evolutionary reason why our nervous system has developed the blush response. Last year there was some research published in the journal Emotion[i] that argued that as a species we developed blushing in order to convey to others that we’re aware that we’ve committed a social faux pas and we regret it, therefore lessening the anger of others at what we’ve done. The authors came to this conclusion after asking 150 people to look at footage of women who they were told had committed some social discretion, and rate how trustworthy they felt they were. Overwhelmingly, the women who were blushing were overwhelmingly rated as more trustworthy.
There’s even a Neuroscientist[ii] who has suggested that the reason why our species has developed such a strong ability to see colours (as opposed to other mammals – think of how limited dogs or cows colour range is) is so that we could see changes in people’s skin colour therefore being better able to read their emotions.
The impact that chronic blushing can have
It’s important to differentiate between the occasional and entirely appropriate blush that most of us have when we are embarrassed and the more chronic and uncontrollable blushing that the young man in the story suffered from. This kind of blushing can be part of what we call a Social Anxiety Disorder where the fear of embarrassing ourselves in public becomes so overwhelming that it begins to control our life; we may dread for weeks and weeks any form of social interaction at all to the point that it interrupts our ability to go about our daily business, our relationships. There’s footage of Brandon’s parents on one of the American news channels saying that his whole day would be planned around trying to avoid any situation which may cause him to blush and how exhausting and debilitating this was.
If you are reading this and can identify with it, please, please go and see your GP. You