Posture and Mood: A Two Way Street

You may have noticed that your mood can affect your posture. For example, if you are feeling depressed, defeated, or submissive, you may slump. If you are feeling proud, confident or dominant, your chest may rise and you may get taller. So it should be obvious that your emotional state will reflect itself in your body orientation. But does this relationship work in reverse as well? In other words, is it possible that your body use or posture could affect your emotions and thoughts? The answer, based on some recent research, appears to be an unambiguous yes. Here are some recent studies that show that body use and emotion is a two-way street.

One study had subjects play a betting game while sitting in two different postures. One was an open, expansive position with the limbs occupying a great deal of space, while the other was a closed, constricted posture with the limbs inward and touching the body.

The subjects with the expanded posture were more likely to take risks on two dollar 50/50 bets, and expressed a greater sense of power and control when rolling the dice. Further, the expansive group had higher testosterone and lower cortisol while competing. I will have to remember this when I go to Vegas and try to summon the hormonal fortitude to make a two dollar bet.

In a different study, students again were divided into groups sitting in expansive versus constricted postures. After participating in various tasks where they were either a manager or a subordinate, and answering various questions, the students in the expansive postures were found to be feel more confident and powerful.

These studies have some interesting implications. First, if mood can be affected by body use, then perhaps losing part of your movement ability through disuse or neglect will cause a corresponding loss of emotional flexibility or resilience. In fact, there are some interesting studies (that I will discuss in a later post) which show that botox injections paralyzing certain facial muscles will result in a diminished capacity to feel emotions expressed by contraction of those muscles.

Another take away from these studies is that changing your movement or posture is a good way to change your emotions. It is usually quite obvious to people that changing their thoughts might be a good way to change their mood. For example, people might try to combat sadness or depression by “thinking happy thoughts.” Another possible approach would be to “move happy moves.” By this logic, smiling can make you happier. Raising your chest can make you feel more confident. Exercise can make you feel more capable, alive, vital and healthy. Perhaps it can even convince your brain that things aren’t quite so bad in the body, and that less pain is necessary. As my wife the psychotherapist might say, sometimes the best plan is to “fake it till you make it.”

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18 Responses to Posture and Mood: A Two Way Street

  1. There is a method which consider the linkages between biomechanics and behavioral’s expressions: the Godelieve Denys-Struyf muscle chains method.

    Psicological and behavioral aspects, both of them, determine the prevalence of certain myofascial tensions in the body.

    According to G.D.S. method, there are six muscle chains families which belong to two possible groups:

    => relational chains: anterolateral and posterolateral, which are linked to introversion and extroversion respectively.

    => personality chains: anteromedian, posteromedian, posteroanterior and anteroposterior chains.

    I think GDS method perfectly agree with your statement: “posture and mood: a two way street”.

    Todd, congratulations, your blog is awesome, I enjoy it a lot!!

    Regards from Madrid, Spain

    • Citation? What’s that? Sounds like something you might find at saveyourself. I don’t have one because I am too lazy right now. There are actually quite a few similar studies with similar findings. I just did a google scholar search for expansive posture and mood and found numerous papers where slumping made it easier to think sad thoughts and vice versa.

  2. Interesting article… What about people with back problems? Let’s say people with a hunchback? Do you think they are underconfident or sad? Cheers

    • Alfredo,

      Thats a great question. I don’t really know the answer but I would have to guess that at some point the brain makes an adjustment so that the hunched position feels neutral and corresponds to a neutral mood.

  3. I think (re posture and mood) that it depends on context and to a certain extent diagnosis .
    There are certainly structural ‘fixed’ problems which to an uneducated eye may give the impression of a brow beaten posture but may turn out to be something like AS – an autoimmune disease. The person may certainly at times be under the weather but I see little correlation .
    Perhaps in slow distortions of the body the central maps sort of slowly adapt and the somatic markers adjust to the situation. However where the situation is more emotionally driven or mirrored learnt behaviour dominates, perhaps Alfredo’s remarks are more subtle and complex . Context, understanding the individual patterns and situation may be more likely to reveal what is driving the behaviour. Thomas Hanna’s somatics makes sense here?

    • Ian,

      Thanks for the thoughts. I think the brain must have at least some ability to stop taking emotional instructions from postures that have become relatively fixed by injury or other factors unrelated to emotional expression or social signalling. And there could be all sorts of complex back and forth interaction, e.g. depression leads to slouching which over time becomes a structural and permanent position built into the bones by Wolff’s law, which will persist regardless of mood. All things equal, I think most people would experience some improved mood if they could improve their posture a little.

      I know Alfredo well enough to know that all his statements are subtle and complex.

  4. Interesting relationships. My son was dyspraxic, and particularly had difficulty with gaze and moving his facial muscles. He was also often depressed. After dyspraxia treatment, I did a bit of work with him using mirrors, and he had eye treatment to improve his gaze. He became a lot less depressed and a lot more sociable.
    I was also an O.T. and we used to work with patients with facial palsy using mirrors.

  5. Popular songs have always known about the connection, as in this one from Nat King Cole:

    “Smile though your heart is aching
    Smile even though it’s breaking
    When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
    If you smile through your fear and sorrow
    Smile and maybe tomorrow
    You’ll see the sun come shining through for you

    Light up your face with gladness
    Hide every trace of sadness
    Although a tear may be ever so near
    That’s the time you must keep on trying
    Smile, what’s the use of crying?
    You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
    If you just smile”

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