Could boosting our mood be as simple as adjusting our posture?
Psychologists have long known that our mood affects our posture but studies are only now confirming that the reverse is true: our posture can influence our mood.
Strike a pose
Did your parents or teachers tell you to sit up straight when you were a kid? It turns out they were onto a good thing. While poor posture can result in muscle tension, fatigue, pain and headaches, it can also affect our state of mind. Study after study after study has shown that our posture not only affects our mood but can actually influence our physiology – affecting our breathing, nervous system, blood pressure, hormones and our brain chemistry.
It’s all related to our stress response. When we’re stressed, anxious, fearful or depressed we tend to hunch over and contract the body. The shoulders slump, the chest sinks and the hip flexors draw in. This creates muscle tension, restricts the ability to breathe deeply and sends a signal to the brain (via the vagus nerve) that we’re in danger. The brain responds with a good dose of adrenaline and cortisol which spikes our blood pressure, heart rate, tenses our muscles and puts us into the fight or flight response.
Researchers have now determined that just adopting a hunched, contracted posture is enough to trigger the stress response, irrespective of whether we’re actually stressed or not. The amygdala, our primal brain, can’t distinguish between real stress or bad posture and responds the only way it knows how – fight or flight.
So now that we know that posture can influence our mood and psychological state, how can we use this to our benefit?
Harvard Psychologists have determined that we can develop feelings of power and confidence simply by adopting certain postures, known as power poses. High power poses increase testosterone to boost our confidence and lower cortisol (stress hormone) to reduce our stress and anxiety levels. Hunching and slumping and adopting a closed or contracted posture elicits a the opposite response – reduces our confidence and increases our stress as measured by hormonal changes.
Struggling to maintain good posture?
You’re not the only one. Habits such as poor posture can be difficult to change but it all starts with awareness.
People who slouch commonly have tight pectoral muscles which pull and round the shoulders forward. Also, weak core muscles will cause the middle and upper back to slump creating tension in the upper back and neck. Tight hip flexors will also cause the lower back to round.
So what can you do it about it?
- become aware that your posture is a problem.
- maintain awareness of your posture in daily activities like when driving, at work and especially when you’re on your phone/tablet
- at each opportunity, sit up straight, roll the shoulders back and align the neck
Keep the hunchback (and depression) at bay with yoga
The ancient yogis have always placed an emphasis on posture as they understood how it influences the mind. From the yoga perspective the spine is our central energy channel sending and receiving messages from the brain to the body.
If that channel is blocked, or out of alignment, then it’s going to affect our mental state, dull our consciousness and agitate the mind. The whole system of yoga is designed to used the body and breath as tools to calm our mind and heighten our consciousness. When yogis talk about being in the body, it is an awareness of the spine and the subtle channeling of energy up the spine towards our brain via the chakras.
In a study on mild depression in young adults, subjects were given a five week yoga program with specific poses designed to alleviate depression.
From the yogic perspective, the back bends and other chest-opening poses emphasized in these classes may have countered the slumped body posture associated with depression. The results of the study showed that just five weeks of yoga can significantly reduce feelings of depression and anxiety in young adults.
The following poses are designed to create space and expansion through the front of the body, especially opening up the chest, shoulders and hip flexors – the same muscles we contract when we’re stressed and in a slump.
Melting heart pose
Upward facing Dog
Cow face pose
Siting up straight not only looks and fees good but being aware of our body and our posture creates a sense of presence. Presence can be hard to define but we know it when we experience it.
So next time you’re in a slump, stressed or lacking confidence, it could be as simple as sitting up straight, expanding your chest and taking up space.
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