The more you think about it, the worse it gets. If it seems as if there’s nothing you can do to stop that blush when you’re embarrassed, you’re right. You have no conscious control over blushing – it is an involuntary response; your cheeks get warm and your face turns red. You can no more stop blood rushing to your face than you can force your heart to stop pumping blood.

The science behind blushing

Blushing seems to be your body’s response to the ‘fight-or-fight’ situation, but the phenomenon of blushing is still not fully understood by scientists. It’s caused by an adrenaline ‘rush’, and is a natural stimulant triggered by the sympathetic nervous system — a complex network of nerves that activate the ‘fight or flight’ mode.

It increases your breathing, causes your pupils to dilate, and makes blood vessels deep in your muscles to dilate in order to get more oxygen and more energy where it is needed most, making you ‘pink up’. A blush occurs in the cheeks and forehead, and embarrassingly can extend to the ears, neck, and upper chest, an area termed the 'blush region'. This area is anatomically different in structure from everywhere else - the facial skin has more capillary loops per unit area and generally more vessels per unit volume than other skin areas, and the blood vessels of the cheeks are wider in diameter and nearer the surface.

Animals don’t blush

Embarrassment is a highly complex emotion that requires knowing what others are thinking about you, which may well be beyond the understanding of any other species. While scientists agree that some animals are capable of experiencing basic emotions, a lack of research means that the jury is still out on these more complex ones. Even animals that get dressed up by humans in ridiculous outfits don’t have the capacity to feel humiliated or embarrassed. Charles Darwin observed that ‘blushing is the most peculiar and most human of all expressions’.

Why does embarrassment trigger the release of adrenaline?

This natural reaction occurs in the face of a perceived threat, and can also be triggered by the onset of a powerful emotion such as stress, shame, or embarrassment. What advantage is gained by the veins in your face opening up? As blood rushes to your face, there is a noticeable effect on your appearance. Many psychologists believe that this suggests that blushing is a defence mechanism. The evolutionary advantage of blushing is perhaps a reliable signal that the ‘blusher’ sends out to the social environment, assuring others that the fact that an unacceptable action or a deviation from social norms has occurred, and is being duly acknowledged by them.

How to help stop blushing when embarrassed

Some people are more prone to blushing than others, but those who do blush can try to ease things by taking deep, slow breaths, which can help relax the body enough to slow down or stop the blushing. Because this occurs when the body is stressed, the key to reducing blushing is to decrease your stress level.

Staying out of the limelight can help limit blushing, as being the centre of attention can cause you to pink up, but it isn’t always possible or socially desirable. At worst, you could just accept that you blush and smile and laugh it off, which just may help to ease anxiety and boost confidence.

Causes of blushing

When you blush, others know that your emotional experience is true and sincere. And sometimes blushing in women is perceived as an attractive thing from a man’s perspective - a smile might blossom too, which adds a bit of real innocence to her look. But alcohol, hot food or drinks, spicy foods, and some medications can also cause blushing.

Here’s a weird fact - researchers also found that when people were asked to sing out loud while someone observed one side of their faces, the side of the face being watched got hotter and redder than the other side!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan