Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

How an involuntary stress reaction could provoke someone into violence

Aimee Fenech
3 min readJan 17

I don’t remember when exactly I became aware of it but I have a few memories where my physical safety was at risk because of it.

When I am in distress I smile involuntarily.

As a child I lived in a high stress environment, I was not able to defend myself and certainly didn’t have any knowledge on how to diffuse the stress through healthy coping mechanisms. Somewhere along the way my body subconsciously learned that smiling was one way to relieve stress.

Unfortunately smiling at someone who is angry at you only inflames them further, but since I am unaware of what I am doing it is very difficult to change my expression.

My earliest memory of being consciously aware is during a beating, he said “It looks like you haven’t had enough yet, I’ll wipe that smile off your face…” I remember thinking I’m not smiling am I? But I was…

Later on when I started working I remember a very unpleasant exchange with a customer at the till, I could see he was on the brink of violence, he said to his wife, “She’s making fun of me look at her smiling.” I didn’t know I was doing it.

Another time whilst parking I clipped a motorcyclist making him fall off his bike at slow speed, I quickly got out of the car to see if he’s ok and he said “You did it in purpose, you’re smiling…”

At the dinner table with a man who had been constantly harassing me for days, he said “I don’t think you feel harassed at all, you’re smiling.” I didn’t know I was smiling but I did know I was severely stressed about having this person in the house and feeling helpless.

When people tell me about their lost loved one’s I have to bring attention to my face consciously making sure I’m not offending them with my involuntary smile.

For years I thought this was the price of an anxious childhood and I didn’t really have a name for it. Then I came across a documentary of a woman who had been kept captive in a cult in London and there I saw it, Katy was smiling while recounting being held captive and abused, she wasn’t finding it funny, she suffers from PTSD and severe anxiety and smiling involuntarily when in distress.

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Aimee Fenech

#permaculture practitioner, teacher and designer, co-founder of #ecohackerfarm, writer, project manager and activist get in touch