Change Your Posture, Change Your Mood
Dr. Joseph Wielgosz is a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University studying the neuroscience of mindfulness and emotional health, as well as a trauma-focused psychotherapist for the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System. He trained at the University of Wisconsin, Madison with Professor Richard Davidson. He has been a meditation practitioner for over 20 years.
According to neuroscientific research, you can change your mood simply by changing your body posture.
Of course, everyone knows that body posture can reflect our emotions. Picture an Olympic sprinter crossing the finish line with their arms in the air, and head thrown back in celebration. Or picture the audience in a horror movie, instinctively cringing and curling up when something goes bump in the night.
But can it also work the other way? Can body posture influence our emotional state, as well as reflect it?
I’ve studied this question as a neuroscientist, a meditation researcher, and a clinical psychologist. I’m fascinated by the embodiment of emotion – that is, the way that feedback loops between your mind, brain, body and world around you constantly shape how you feel. One way this is happening, every moment of every day, is through the position of our bodies.
During my training, I worked with the psychologist Paula Niedenthal, who studied how signals from the body can activate emotional memories. Meanwhile, as a meditator myself, I knew that practicing good body posture was a significant part of establishing a solid mindfulness meditation practice, and wondered if it might actually be a factor all by itself in creating the benefits of the practice observed in numerous studies. So, as a researcher at the Center for Healthy Minds, led by Richard Davidson, I decided to use our neuroscientific expertise to look at how body posture affects mood.
To study this question, I recruited volunteers to sit in different body positions – a curled-up protective pose, an open-chested expansive one, and a plain old neutral position – while measuring their “startle eyeblink response.” This response is a kind of muscle twitch that gets stronger when the amygdala (which, among its numerous jobs, alerts the rest of the brain to possible threats) is sending signals that the body should enter fight-or-flight mode. Half of the time, people were just sitting and looking at a computer screen. The other half of the time, they had a genuine reason for anxiety: a cue changed color to indicate that they might receive a mildly uncomfortable (though safe and non-painful!) electric shock. What’s worse, it was unpredictably timed, so it could arrive at any moment while the cue was lit up.
What did the eyeblink responses show? The non-cued people were less anxious in the open position than the defensive one. But, interestingly, when the stress cue was present, the pattern was reversed: the eyeblink was higher in the open position, while people seemed less anxious in a defensive posture.
What do we make of this? When people were thinking about a threat, they actually felt a little bit of relief from this defensive body position. But when the threat was gone, holding that same position felt worse.
Applied to our everyday lives, defensive body postures may actually reduce stress when we’re confronted with a threat. But if the coast is clear, our posture may be sending signals back to our brain that there’s still a threat out there. Our brains get the message to stay in fight-or-flight mode, and we stay stressed out.
Try this quick, easy exercise. In a sitting position, notice how your legs and feet are arranged. Place both feet flat on the floor, so that your body has three stable points of support (two feet and one butt). Now notice the position of your neck and spine. Try letting them straighten, as if they were being pulled up by a thread at the crown of your head. See if you can sit so that your back is supporting its own weight. Finally, notice how your shoulders feel. Roll them in circles a few times, and then let them drop as far down as they go. Take a few breaths. Does your breathing feel different? What about your mood? If you were feeling anxious or down, do you notice any shift? And does your mind feel any more settled?
For many people, just shifting posture in this way changes mood and alertness. No surprise, then, that body posture is an important piece of many mind-body traditions like sitting meditation and yoga. And no surprise, either, that many of them recommend the same kinds of posture positions you just experienced if you did the exercise above. Specifically:
- Find a stable base, with three points of support – your seat, plus either both feet in a chair, or both knees for sitting on the ground.
- Maintain an upright, but relaxed back – imagine the crown of your head, your neck and spine comfortably hanging from a thread.
- Allow your shoulders to drop and relax, and your arms to rest with your hands open, either together in your lap, or resting on your legs.
To be sure, our scientific understanding of this subject is still at an early stage, and you should always take a single study – including mine – with a grain of salt. For those of us painstakingly mapping how the brain, nervous system, and body interact to shape emotions, research on body postures is really just getting started.
But you can also be a scientist in your own life. Try adjusting how you hold your body in daily life, or in your meditation practice, and pay attention to how it affects your mood. Pay attention to both the short-term and long-term effects – sometimes, long-term benefits are hiding behind short- term discomfort. You might find that simply changing your posture can make you that little bit calmer and happier over time.
Dr. Joseph Wielgosz is a Clinical Psychologist who recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford researching the neuroscience of mental health & well-being. He did his graduate training at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin.