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Good Posture, Good Mood: The Connection Is Real
You’ve heard of the mind-body connection, but did you know that just the way you carry yourself can affect your mental state?
If you’ve ever felt so upbeat it’s like you’re walking on air, or low enough you just want to curl up into a ball in your favorite hoodie, you’ve experienced what’s known as “embodied cognition”—the act of realizing an emotional state through physical expression. The relationship is two-way: How you carry yourself and the way you move not only reflects your mental state, but affects it, too. Increasingly, embodied cognition has become an area of interest to psychologists, who see it as a way to help people forge a deeper connection between their physical and mental wellbeing.
The Emotion-Motion Connection
Of all the ways people use movement to express their feelings, the basic act of how you hold yourself when you sit, stand or walk speaks volumes. “Research suggests that body posture is linked to emotions in more ways than previously thought,” says Elizabeth Broadbent, Ph.D., an associate professor of health psychology at the University of Auckland and co-author of a leading study in this field. "Sadness is linked to a slumped upper body and downward tilted head. Happiness is associated with your frame being open and expanded, with more confident and definitive movements.”
Intuitively, you know that movement itself makes you feel good. You are in a better mental spot after a good run, yoga practice, or even just getting out for a walk, but the way you carry yourself when doing these activities can also enhance how you feel about them. “Being more upright rather than slouched can increase your feelings of joy after a session,” says Broadbent. “It can also help your persistence when doing a difficult task.” (So shoulders back, head up before grinding out that last set of curls.)
The influence of posture on your attitude can be traced back to your autonomic nervous system. Your spinal column houses a large number of nerves that ultimately branch off and send signals to your muscles and organs. Your posture has a direct impact on this network of nerves that travel throughout the body, and that can affect how you think and feel. “When your posture is compromised or altered in any way, whether repetitively or temporarily, your spine and nervous system are affected which can cause a chain reaction with your mental, physical and emotional wellbeing,” says Alison Morse, a chiropractor at NYC Corrective Chiropractic Care.
The WFH Mood
This chain reaction may also be to blame for any increase in irritability you’ve experienced since the world went to work-from-home status. (Of course, tensions are heightened during these stressful times regardless, and no doubt other factors contribute, too.) It’s worth considering whether your new WFH lifestyle involves prolonged periods of sofa-sitting, hunching over a laptop at the kitchen table or reading company reports in bed. It may feel comfortable to sit this way, but such home-office ergonomics are not necessarily optimal from an emotional standpoint.
“Technology plays a huge part in affecting our posture—anything from looking down and texting to sitting with your laptop for several hours a day can cause what’s known as forward head posture, which is when the spine straightens and begins to fall forward, stretching the spinal cord and nerves,” says Morse. In turn, this sitting position tightens and tenses muscles further, pulling bones out of place and placing pressure on nerves, causing various physical symptoms, and possibly, mood changes.
Don’t Forget to Breathe
The way you sit or carry yourself can also impact airflow to your lungs. Hunching over your laptop restricts air—and therefore oxygen—to these organs, and a decrease in O2 can result in feelings of fatigue, irritability and even depression as you go about your day, thus fueling this bad mood/posture cycle, according to Broadbent.
To keep your vibe positive and high energy, make sure you sit in a chair (not your couch) when working from home, and use a chair that has a firm, supportive back. Place your laptop so that you look straight at the screen, rather than bending down over it (stack some books beneath it to get it to the proper height). Also, get up from your seat and move every hour, checking in with your body to be sure you’re not slouching. If you are, take a moment to realign by opening your chest, pulling back your shoulders and raising your chin. And, be mindful of your breathing—deeper belly breaths relax the body, while shorter, shallower breaths add tension. Regular stretches and neck rolls to get the circulation going are also helpful.
Studies have shown that spinal adjustments, even small ones, release endorphins—they’re the feel-good chemicals that give your energy and attitude a lift. In simple terms, good posture can give you regular boosts of happiness.
Moreover, the way you carry yourself sends a message about your emotional state to others. “Your posture or body language says so much about who you are and how you feel,” says Morse. Standing tall with shoulders back projects confidence. Slouching forward, meanwhile, suggests someone who is downbeat and uncertain. So improving your posture can make you feel better inside, while sending positive signals to people on the outside. Bottom line, says Morse: “Great posture can change your whole world and how you live it.”