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Posture and Mental Health

Can the way you carry yourself improve how you feel?

There are simple life hacks that really work. Many of them are things you can do easily to improve physical or mental health. One that impacts both is your posture. Posture is simply the position your body holds while sitting, standing or lying down.

Modern living often sabotages our posture, consider the ever present drooping head, leaning so far forward that we may be growing a new part of the skull to compensate for the unnatural weight distribution. Working on laptops and mobile devices often make it extremely difficult to find proper alignment and fosters much of the rounded shoulder posture that is so common today. Poor posture is also however considered a physical sign of depression. So could your poor posture actually be submarining your positive attitude and overall feelings of well-being?

Excellent posture is good for the body certainly. Rolling the shoulders back and lifting the chest opens the airways and allows the diaphragm to work properly, making it easier to fill your lungs. A neutral neck, with chin parallel to the floor takes pressure off the neck and back and may eliminate tension headaches. There is also some thought that carpel tunnel syndrome may have poor posture as a cause, as the nerves in the back and neck are responsible for the muscle function in the hands and arms. Improper alignment of the spine when sitting or standing can cause chronic back pain. Poor posture ultimately stresses the body, causing fatigue and lethargy. Digestion can also be negatively impacted by slumping posture as organs are pushed together, making it harder for the body to digest food and may even cause constipation. 

It is easy to understand the physical implications of posture, but can good posture actually support good mental health? Many studies confirm a link between mind and body. Does the body perceive a level of fear in a closed off posture? One study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that participants who sat in a slumped position were more fearful, had lower self-esteem and were more likely to experience bad moods than those who sat up straight. Slouchers also used more negative speech and had elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Conversely, the study determined that properly seated posture may actually make people more resilient to stress by maintaining feelings of self-esteem and reducing negative moods. When participants sat upright, they reported more confidence and spoke with more positive words.

So can one change one’s attitude just by adjusting one’s posture? Another study in the Journal of Behavioral Therapy concluded that upright posture may indeed increase positive affect, reduce fatigue, and decrease self focus in people with mild to moderate depression.  A study at Ohio State University also found participants who sat up straight had better self opinions around their ability to perform a job successfully than those who did not. 

Working in corporate sales, I have trained many associates along the way. Telemarketing sales associates where always encouraged to maintain good posture. When speaking on the phone to a potential customer, associates were always coached to sit up and smile, especially at the start of the conversation. Those who practiced this almost always had better closing rates. They started the call sounding more confident and were received by the potential customer in a more positive way. As trainers, we knew posture was a key part of energizing the associate to project enthusiasm, affecting the words they chose,  and the tone of their voice. Some associates even put mirrors in their cubicles to remind themselves to sit up and smile, as they saw how it improved results in their sales performance. The correct posture supported not only better physiology but also better attitude and the rest of their success flowed from that confidence.

When we see someone who sits with head down and shoulders slumped, we assume they are unhappy or defeated in some way. Most likely we even treat then with that assumption in mind.  Think about the ramifications of poor posture during a job interview. The interviewer might assume many things about a slouched posture; that the candidate is not confident or is shy, that they are not really interested in the position, or perhaps they are unhappy to be there. The impression will in most cases be on the negative side. But it is more than just the outsider’s impression of the candidate, the candidate by way of poor posture, may be communicating negative thoughts to themselves about their own ability to do the job, without even realizing it. 

For improved mental health, try this simple life hack when sitting. Sitting in a chair, distribute your weight evenly on both hips, knees are bent at a right angle and even with the hips, feet placed flat on the floor preferably, keep the spine straight and your shoulders back, your chin is parallel to the floor and the crown of your head stretches toward the ceiling. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. You should feel an improvement to your energy level almost immediately. You may also feel more positive, more creative, and more confident as you maintain better posture. Others may even sit up and take notice of your new found attitude.

For more serious anxiety or depression, these simple suggestions may not be effective and it is best to seek the intervention of a professional to help determine appropriate therapy or medication.

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