Expert comment: looking after our posture can protect our mental health
Updated: Jul 25
Don't let physical issues become mental ones!!
It was my pleasure to give comments to Stylist magazine on how our posture can connect with our mental wellbeing, and what we can do about both.
S: 1. How can bad posture affect your mental health?
AT: Bad posture has long been associated with poor mental health. Clinicians will report that clients who are depressed will often present with poor posture (eg. Slumping) – almost as if they are trying to make themselves as small as possible.
Physically poor posture can lead to pain in the joints and lack of mobility if it becomes a lifetime habit, and that in turn can cause problems with our wellbeing because it can restrict what we can do, or join in with; and chronic pain is extremely unpleasant to deal with. That, in turn can have repercussions for our mental wellness.
Poor posture can also attract unwanted attention – or have the opposite effect. If we are perceived as being “down” this might result in people wanting to “cheer us up” - when perhaps we’d rather be left alone; or on the contrary if those we are around find sadness uncomfortable, they may choose to ignore us. This class in our social interactions or desires can also cause us to become frustrated or upset.
S: 2. What effect does slumping have on mood?
AT: Slumping can affect mood negatively because when we slump we look down towards the floor, so we may miss the exciting or pleasant things that are going on a little higher up!
As point 3 above, it can also give the impression we are not confident, and people may treat us as such which and result in feeling less confident that we may have been to begin with.
In a study by Petty in 2009 it was found that, depending on their posture, students believed more or less in their self-reported traits ie. If they were slumped they were less convinced in their response compared to when they sat upright.
S: 3. Can posture affect your self-esteem/confidence?
AT: Petty’s study goes some way to suggest that slumping can lead to a lack of confidence in ones’ self. Amy Cuddy (who talks about power poses) says we can encourage feelings of confidence by taking “power poses” such as those often presented by superheroes ie. Batman or Superman. She advises that candidates take a moment to themselves to stand this way prior to entering the interview. The physiological “truth” may well be that when we stand firm ie. With both feel shoulder width apart and planted on the ground we are physically more solid – ie. Less able to be knocked over, this in itself can make us feel more confident. Further poses such as “hands on hips” can help us take up more space.
However – too much of this – especially in public and it can cause a negative reaction in others as confidence may be perceived as arrogance and the reactions that can generate from others can be as damaging as not having felt confident/stood confidently in the first place!!
S: 4. Can bad posture trigger depressive symptoms?
AT: Again, research suggests that sitting upright can make participants feel “prouder” when they have achieved something, or less likely to continue to try and problem-solve if they are slumping and struggling, but a lot of this may also be related to simple physiology! If we are upright we can breathe easier, we can see more, we look more engaged and engaging, and if we are slumped over we can cause ourselves pain – including next strain which can lead to headaches…and again this can result in a low mood.
S: 5. Do you have any tips that can make people more mindful of their posture?
1. Notice how you sit when you are sitting – are you slumped over? I personally have a back harness (yes!!) – it’s like a bra/holster which keeps my shoulders down. What this does for me is simply work as a physical reminder because I know that when I am aware of it, I am often slouching, but I also know I don’t (yet) think about it enough to correct myself naturally (unless I am presenting when it is habitual). This physical tool helps me make good posture a habit when I’m at my desk. Some people sit on a “swiss ball” (rather than having a back to their chair) to improve both posture and core strength.
2. A little tip from my theatrical knowledge on posture and correcting it in others – if you are aware that as you stand with your hands by your sides your thumbs are pointing inwards towards your legs, roll your shoulders back as the thumbs are a giveaway that there is a slight slump in your posture.
3. If you are feeling down, see if changing your posture to one that is upright improves your mood – if it does, that’s a very quick tip. Take up more space (not in a "manspreading way" - but in a way that doesn't apologise for your presence.)
4. Praise your body from time to time for the amount of work it does. I do a silly exercise called "Thank you steps" while walking my dog - I simply say "thank you" every time I take a step - it reminds me that my body is getting me from A to B, it's strong, it allows me to touch those I love, to dance, to do what makes me feel great...rather than thinking "It's too fat/slow/weak/unattractive..." Give your body some love.
5. Make stretching part of your regular routine. I now incorporate two simple stretches (arms and legs) as I’m lying down before I sleep and before I get up – and with that add a further mindfulness technique – as I wake and stretch my arms I think about one thing or person I’m grateful to have in my life and as I stretch my legs, one thing I’m looking forward to that day. Before I sleep I stretch my arms and think of one good thing that happened that day, and as I stretch my legs - one thing/person I was grateful to see that day.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilienceFor coaching tips and tools including positive psychology: click WORK WITH ME or SKILL PILL and here for Media appearances or Psych Q&A. Twitter/IG @draudreyt
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