Have you ever been in such a good mood that you felt like you were walking taller than usual? Or, perhaps, felt so bad that you literally wanted to shrink? There’s a psychology behind this known as embodied cognition, and it’s driving new ways of looking at the connection between body language and mental health. “Research suggests that body posture is linked to emotions,” says Elizabeth Broadbent, Associate Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Auckland and co-author of several studies on the subject. “Sadness, for example, is linked to a slumped upper body and head that's tilted down, while happiness is associated with an upright posture and lengthened body.”
Of course, we know how our mental state affects the way we carry ourselves, but several compelling studies have now connected the way in which our movements affect our mood. “When we look at posture, it’s not just about how a person is positioning him or herself externally and how that looks on the outside,” says Ali Morse, DC, a chiropractor specializing in spinal and postural rehabilitation at NYC Corrective Chiropractic Care. “When your posture is compromised or altered in any way, whether repetitively or temporarily, your spine and nervous system are affected, and this can cause a plethora of chain reactions within your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.”
Think about it this way: The nerves in your spinal column move throughout the rest of your body, enabling your limbs and organs to function. Any compression on the nerves acts like a dimmer switch, inhibiting the nervous system, thus altering how you feel and think. “Anything from looking down and texting to sitting and staring at a computer for several hours a day causes what is called Forward Head Posture (FHP),” Dr. Morse explains. This poor posture stretches the spinal cord, causing muscles to become tight and tense, pulling bones out of place (subluxation), and placing pressure on the nerves. A common side effect? Mood changes.
There’s also the oxygen side of things to consider, too. Fatigue can occur with as little as a 30 percent decrease in lung capacity. Slouching over your desk depresses your chest, causing loss of energy, irritability, even anxiety. Given the prolonged periods of daily desk-based working, it’s no wonder sitting is being hailed as “the new smoking.”
On a positive note, after a spinal adjustment, endorphins are released within the brain and nervous system. These are the chemicals that relieve pain and stress, so much like the studies suggest, good posture can make you feel happier and stronger, too. Further proving that good posture can go a long way, Dr. Broadbent says that sitting upright rather than slouched can help you feel more confident in your thoughts, increase your persistence at a difficult task, make you feel prouder after a success, and generally improve your self-esteem.
The first step to improving your posture is becoming more mindful. Check in on your body throughout the day and train yourself to recognize that familiar slump. Take a moment to realign by opening your chest, pulling back your shoulders, and raising your chin. Making sure your desk is ergonomically set up is also important, adds Dr. Morse, as is getting up from your seat to move or stretch every hour. Being cognizant of how your posture makes you feel both physically and mentally will go a long way in boosting your mood, she says.