When you think about managing mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder, posture probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But more and more research is showing that how you hold and position your body can have a profound effect on how you feel.
While it’s clear that our state of mind can affect our posture, it may be less obvious that our posture can affect our state of mind. But it truly is a two-way street. By changing your body posture you can change how you think and feel, improve your well-being, and perhaps even change the outcome of your life.
How Posture Affects Us
Research is showing that posture affects our biochemistry and impacts us psychologically in a number of ways, including our:
- Energy level
- Stress level
While modern research “proves” this connection, it’s understood in wisdom traditions dating back to ancient times. In practices such as yoga, meditation, prayer, martial arts, and dance, different postures are associated with different states of consciousness.
There are a number of reasons that posture impacts our state of mind:
- Different postures have different effects on the anatomy and physiology of the body. Posture affects, among other things, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, muscle tension, blood flow and reflexes.
- We draw conclusions about ourselves by observing our own behavior. According to self-perception theory, people observe themselves and interpret what their behavior means — and that observation determines their own emotions and attitudes. We draw conclusions about other people based on their nonverbal communication, including their posture, all the time. Interestingly, we may do the same thing with ourselves. Many postures are universal throughout the animal kingdom, and we are hardwired to recognize their meaning and respond accordingly — whether they are made by us or by someone else.
- Assuming postures consciously increases body awareness. The very act of bringing attention to the body can increase relaxation. When you activate the body sense, which is the state of attending to and perceiving your body, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming part of the nervous system that turns off the fight or flight response) and reduce stress hormones. In my experience, bringing attention to sensations in my body almost always relaxes my breathing right away.
Using Posture in Mental Health Recovery
There are two ways you can use posture as part of mental health recovery. The first is to change your habitual posture habits. How you carry yourself on a day-to-day basis can have a dramatic impact on your thoughts and emotions. To get a sense of this, try the following experiment:
- Stand or sit in a slouched, hunched over position for a couple of minutes. Tune in to your body and notice how you feel. Also notice your thoughts.
- Now stand or sit in a straight, upright position for a couple of minutes. Again, notice your thoughts and feelings.
What differences did you notice? It’s likely that you felt more stressed and insecure in the slouched position, and more relaxed and confident in the straight position. You may also have noticed more negative thoughts in the slouched posture and more positive thoughts in the upright one.
There are different schools of thought on exactly what “good posture” means, but most agree you should:
- Stand or sit up straight. Your spine should be upright rather than slouched over. However, it also shouldn’t be too rigid, like a military posture.
- Keep your shoulders in a relaxed position, not drooping but not hunched up around your ears.
- Keep your chest in a convex rather than concave position (in other words, don’t cave it in).
- Keep your head aligned with your shoulders rather than protruding forward. Your ears should be over your shoulders.
- Use the muscles in the center of your body to help keep you upright.
The second way to use posture is to intentionally change the shape of your body in order to change how you think, feel and behave. Below are four postures you can try. The specific effects these postures have vary from person to person, so experiment and find what works best. A big part of recovery is self-awareness. Turn your attention to your body and notice what shifts happen in your state of mind as you try different postures.
Remember, these postures are tools in a large toolbox of management strategies. They’re intended to be used when you first notice mild symptoms, when you’re going through a brief period of stress, or for maintaining stability. They probably won’t help if you have moderate to severe symptoms of depression or mania, for example. In those cases, it’s important to seek professional treatment right away.
The Victory Posture
What do winning athletes do when they experience the thrill of victory? They throw their arms in the air in a “V” shape and raise their chins. Think Rocky Balboa. This is a universal posture of pride. Even people who are blind from birth instinctively use this posture when they win. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard, has studied the effects of posture on the mind. Specifically, she is interested in “power posing,” particular postures that are used by powerful people. Power postures such as the “victory posture” involve taking up space with the body. Cuddy has a popular TED Talk, How Your Body Shapes Who You Are, in which she discusses her research on power posing and how we can use posture to “fake it till we become it.”
How to do it: Raise your arms above your head and make a V shape. Hold the posture for about two minutes. You can experiment with how wide the “V” is and whether you keep your hands clenched into fists or open.
What it does: The victory posture increases mood and energy. Power postures increase testosterone, which is the dominance hormone, and decrease cortisol, which is the stress hormone. In other words, they make you feel more confident and calmer. Power postures are good to use if you start to feel a little down in the dumps. They are also helpful before job interviews, dates, speeches, or other anxiety-provoking situations. For example, you can get to a job interview early, find the restroom, and do a power pose for a couple of minutes.
The Smiling Posture
Smiling has multiple benefits for both mental and physical health. While power postures trick the brain into feeling powerful, smiling tricks the brain into believing you are happy. In other words, we don’t just smile because we are happy — we are happy because we smile.
It’s a cliché to tell someone to smile when they are down — and when you’re seriously depressed it’s an insult. Once when I was in a severe depressive episode, I had a psychologist tell me to just smile and I would feel better. She also told me that I couldn’t be very depressed because my toenails were painted (that was the first and last time I saw that psychologist).
In any case, for people who are mildly depressed, feeling a little down, or just want to maintain a positive mood, smiling can help a lot.
How to do it: Everyone knows how to smile, but if you’re feeling down it can be rather difficult to muster one up. “Genuine” smiles may have more of an effect than “fake” smiles, but even smiles that are forced are beneficial.
Here are some tips:
- Hold a pen or pencil between your teeth horizontally. Research has shown that this engages the muscles used in a smile, making the brain think you are really smiling.
- Open your mouth a little and push up the corners of your mouth.
- Think of something that makes you smile, and continue to hold the smile.
- Watch funny videos that make you laugh.
Smile as often as you can. Unlike many postures, smiling can be used while you are driving or engaged in other activities. But don’t try too hard—deliberately smiling to change your mood may backfire if you think too much about it.
What it does: Smiling can make you feel more positive, calm, centered and confident. You may notice that smiling relieves stress, reduces muscle tension and makes you feel more present in the moment. Smiling while doing a difficult or frustrating task can make it more pleasant. Smiling has been found to:
- Increase endorphins, the body’s “feel-good” natural painkillers
- Increase serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters associated with antidepressant functions
- Reduce cortisol and lead to relaxation
The Healing Hands Posture
This is a very relaxing, self-soothing posture. Variations on this gesture have been used since ancient times and throughout multiple cultures. In certain contexts it can be used to enter a spiritual trance, but for everyday use it’s a simple and soothing gesture. It is one of the “self-holding” gestures used in Peter Levine’s therapy for trauma, Somatic Experiencing.
How to do it: Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. This can be done in a standing, sitting, or lying position. Traditionally, the posture is done with the right palm on the chest as if you are saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and the left arm horizontally across the waist with the left palm slightly to the right of the navel. However, in modern secular usage the posture is less precise. Experiment and find what works best for you. Hold the position anywhere from two to 20 minutes. It can be used as a way to quickly reduce anxiety, or as part of a longer relaxation exercise (for example, you can close your eyes and focus on the warmth of your hands on your body, your breathing, or your heartbeat).
What it does: This posture quells anxiety, agitation and the arousal associated with trauma. It is warming and soothing. You can also use it any time you need to take a break and recharge. You will likely find that your breath slows down and deepens. To me it feels like taking a warm bath or a mini-nap.
The Belly Down Posture
This posture is known as the crocodile pose in yoga. It involves lying on the ground on your belly. The posture helps you breathe from your diaphragm, which aids in relaxation.
How to do it: Lie down on the ground on your belly (use a mat or blanket if needed). Turn your feet so your toes are pointing outward or inward to stabilize your lower body. Keep your arms over your head to stabilize your chest. Rest your head on one of your arms, the curve of an elbow, or whatever feels comfortable. Remain in the posture for approximately five to 15 minutes. Be sure to get up slowly when you are done to prevent dizziness.
What it does: This posture will relax your nervous system and make you calmer. You may feel rested and clearheaded afterward. You can use it when you are feeling overwhelmed, restless or irritable and need to take a “time out.”
These are just a few of many, many postures that can improve your state of mind. Experiment with posture and see what happens.