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Health & Wellbeing / Ali Horsfall

Burning Up? The Real Reason Why You Can’t Stop Blushing

If you’re a natural born “blusher”, you’ll know full well the deeply uncomfortable feeling of your face turning redder than red. Oww. Once that slow, steady burn starts creeping up your neck it’s a one-way street to red-face, right? You’ve just got to ride it out til the fire subsides. Beyond awkward.

And a fierce flush can happen *anywhere* – on a date, in a work meeting, when you accidentally flash the amazon delivery guy while in your dressing gown. Gah. The tomato cheeks sure seem to strike when you least want them to.

So why do we burn up, and is there anything that can be done to dial down those blush moments? Let’s find out.

All about the blush

It goes without saying that blushing and embarrassment go hand-in-hand. Some Oscar-worthy acting will occasionally get you through an awkward situ, but if you’ve a tendency to blush, there’s no denying that you’re dying inside – the whole world can see it. And all it takes is for some smart ass to utter those fateful words: “you’re going SO red!” for the fire on your face to burn harder and stronger.

The reasons for a red face are mostly psychological. Embarrassed blushing is linked to the body’s fight-or-flight response, controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. When you’re in situation that’s uncomfortable, adrenaline kicks in. It’s this hormone that causes your breathing to quicken, your heart rate to rise and your blood vessels to dilate to help deliver oxygen more efficiently to the body in the time of stress. In some people, the face will listen to these signals too and the veins there will expand to allow a sudden flush of blood – hence that on-fire feeling.

There are of course other reasons for getting red cheeks. Feeling fruity can cause a bit of a flush as can drinking alcohol or eating spicy food. These responses are not linked to adrenaline, however.

Help! I’m on fire

Blushing is a powerful, involuntary response, so with all the will in the world, it’s hard to stop it once it starts – others even think it’s cute (that’ll be the non-blushers then). If you’re feeling self-conscious though, you can look at the situations that will trigger a blush, and see if you can change your thinking around them.

You might find that you blush much less now than you did at school, or that some social situations increase the likelihood of you getting embarrassed. This is all linked to your confidence. The more self-assured or relaxed you are, the less likely you are to release adrenaline as a response to feeling anxiety, shame or stress.

This could mean working on public speaking techniques if you’re terrified of talking in meetings (there are a million books to help with this one), or trying out some confidence boosting tips – one quick way to take the heat out of an embarrassing moment is to vocalise it. By saying out loud, “wow, I’m really cringing here,” you’re bringing your embarrassment into the open arena which immediately short-circuits the feelings, and your red face. Blushing can often be based on the fear of your “inner feelings” being exposed.  

Embrace the blush

If you’re burning up regularly because of a fear of blushing (erythrophobia), social phobia or generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), and it’s massively affecting your quality of life, your GP may refer you for psychological treatment. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), can break the cycle of negative or unrealistic thinking, and help you adopt a more positive thought process. Which in turn can stop blushing caused by crippling self-consciousness.

And while the NHS say that “in the most severe cases of facial blushing, where other treatments haven’t helped, a type of surgery called endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy (ETS) may be considered,”  it’s worth noting that blushing is not a negative trait. It can show you’re a sensitive and thoughtful person – you’re just wearing your emotions on the outside, that’s all. The hardest critic on your red face will always be yourself, triggering more embarrassment, which in turn will trigger more blushing. Being kinder to yourself about your blushing can help break the cycle.

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