Can Better Posture Help Overcome Depression?

It’s natural to think that facial expression and bodily posture reflect our emotional states. Feeling happy makes us smile. Feeling sad makes us frown. Feeling confident makes us sit up straight and hold our head high. Feeling dejected makes us slouch and slump and stare at the ground.

There’s a great deal of evidence, however, that this process runs both ways. Facial expression and bodily posture can also influence our emotional states. Making the effort to smile and to avoid frowning can improve your mood. Improving your bodily posture can foster more confidence and self-esteem. There’s a whole subfield of psychology now known as “embodied cognition”. This counterintuitive notion gives us some tools to fight depression.

Smash Depression has looked into smiling and laughter therapy in the past. And we reported on a strange research study using Botox to paralyze subjects’ frown muscles. This post specifically looks at posture and its effects on depression.

Research on Posture and Mood

One recent study in Health Psychology asked, “Do slumped and upright postures affect stress responses?” From a Time magazine summary:

Researchers studied what effect slumped or straightened posture had on the hearts and minds of 74 people in New Zealand, who were strapped into their assigned postures with tape. Their blood pressure and heart rates were measured as they completed a series of tasks designed to assess their mood, self-esteem and stress levels.

“The upright participants reported feeling more enthusiastic, excited, and strong, while the slumped participants reported feeling more fearful, hostile, nervous, quiet, still, passive, dull, sleepy, and sluggish,” study authors write. Good posture was also associated with higher self-esteem, less social fear and fewer negative emotions.

Is it OK to chuckle a little at the image of 74 college freshmen duct-taped to their chairs for Psychology 101 course credit? I think so.

Fast Company covered some similar studies, including “Increase or Decrease Depression: How Body Postures Influence Your Energy Level” (PDF) (Biofeedback, 2012).

In a series of experiments, [psychology professor Erik] Peper found that sitting in a collapsed, helpless position makes it easier for negative thoughts and memories to appear while sitting in an upright, powerful position makes it easier to have empowering thoughts and memories.

“Emotions and thoughts affect our posture and energy levels; conversely, posture and energy affect our emotions and thoughts,” says one of Peper’s studies from 2012, and two minutes of skipping versus walking in a slouched position can make a significant difference on our energy levels.

In a recent New York Times piece, Amy Cuddy cited several research studies on posture and mood. Cuddy specifically noted how modern heavy smartphone use has people slouching and hunching forward much more than in the past. Her piece was entitled “Your iPhone Is Ruining Your Posture — and Your Mood”.

Technology is transforming how we hold ourselves, contorting our bodies into what the New Zealand physiotherapist Steve August calls the iHunch. […]

When we’re sad, we slouch. We also slouch when we feel scared or powerless. Studies have shown that people with clinical depression adopt a posture that eerily resembles the iHunch. One, published in 2010 in the official journal of the Brazilian Psychiatric Association, found that depressed patients were more likely to stand with their necks bent forward, shoulders collapsed and arms drawn in toward the body.

Cuddy presents some of her own recent research suggesting that excessive smartphone-induced slouching decreases one’s confidence and assertiveness. She closes by recommending some posture and exercise tips to counteract the iHunch effect, since “your physical posture sculpts your psychological posture”.

Power Posing

Amy Cuddy is best known for a 2012 TED Talk called “Your body language shapes who you are”. The summary blurb reads, “Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how ‘power posing’ — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success.” It’s currently the second most-watched TED Talk of all time.

The TED Talk was based on a 2010 research paper, “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance” (PDF), by Cuddy and two colleagues.

Amy Cuddy in Wonder Woman power pose

Cuddy described the power posing technique for CNN:

Preparatory power posing is taking a few minutes before walking into a stressful interaction or situation to open up, occupy more space, and make yourself big. Stand with your feet apart and your hands on your hips, or with your arms reaching up in a ‘V.’ Or sit with your legs in front of you, feet propped up on desk or a table, leaning back, with your hands on the back of your head, fingers interlaced, and elbows pointing out.

Try power poses in the elevator, a bathroom stall, the stairwell … wherever you can find two minutes of privacy.

The “power pose” became a lifehacking craze for a while, covered by Slate and Business Insider among others. Its popularity is not hard to understand; it’s quick, free, simple and fun. Who doesn’t enjoy playing Wonder Woman or Rocky for two minutes? There’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence that power posing works.

There has been pushback against the scientific claims made by Cuddy and colleagues. One group of researchers tried to replicate the original study and found “No Effect on Hormones and Risk Tolerance” (PDF) from power posing. A skeptical Slate piece called it “the latest example of scientific overreach”. The claim that power posing affects your hormone levels may well be bunk.

Better Posture Tips

So, can better posture really have a positive effect against depression? Probably yes. I don’t have the expertise to weigh the scientific claims in these studies, but the general trend does look convincing. How strong can this positive effect be? Hard to say. At the very least, there’s almost certainly no downside to improving your posture.

Here’s my takeaway:

If you find yourself adopting a depressive posture often — slouching, neck bent forward, shoulders turned inward — cut it out.

Whether you’re sitting, standing or walking, make the effort to straighten your back, stop slouching, hold your head high and look straight ahead, hold your shoulders back and your chest out. Take a few deep breaths in this stance.

When you make this change, monitor your own moods. Do you feel any different after a few minutes of consciously maintaining a strong, confident posture? Maybe just a little? Try making this a regular habit.

Try power posing at least once or twice. Start with the classic Wonder Woman pose. It is kind of fun, if nothing else.

Better posture is not the most important step you can take to fight depression. If posture was the only thing you worked on, you would probably see no mood improvement at all. But the best approach to fighting depression is to cultivate many good habits and to get all those habits working together in a positive direction.


Photo credits: PopTech on Flickr, Erika Wittlieb on Pixabay

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