Fixing Your Posture Is the Dark Horse of Stress Relief

Saying that 2020 has been stressful is an understatement. We’ve gone through a mammoth election. We’ve seen or experienced civil unrest that has brought out a myriad of painful emotions. We’ve had a global pandemic…and we’re still very much in the thick of it. As this baggage continues to pile up, our sense of control over the mind and body can quickly wane.

We can often feel dissociated from our bodies, turning to external sources to attempt to find happiness, peace, and meaning. Unfortunately, this solution is rarely effective and never sustainable. To stay sane during these times, we must remember two very important things:

  1. Not all forms of stress are bad. They are often useful cues if we can listen in and respond appropriately.

  2. We have more control over our stress levels than we give ourselves credit for.

The next time you hit a crossroads where you begin to feel overwhelmed, remind yourself that you’re still in control. Stand up. Take a breath. Have a drink of water. Heck, even something as simple as improving your posture can make all the difference.

Here’s how.

Stress Can Be a Blessing in Disguise

Every organ and tissue in the human body has one main goal: homeostasis. This is the physiological state of equilibrium when you feel the internal sirens quieting and measures like your heart and breath rates slowing down. The reality is, our bodies are exposed to stimuli every day that vault us out of this state and into what we typically label as ‘stress’.

In our modern world, there is an important paradigm shift we should be making about stress. It is often acting as a protective mechanism, drawing our attention to what is pulling us out of homeostasis so that we can adjust our lifestyle to return to equilibrium once again.

Be grateful for stress, you couldn’t live without it.

Where things can often go wrong is when this protective mechanism turns on us. This is commonly referred to as ‘chronic stress’, and can begin taking over every aspect of one’s life. More people are falling into this because…

  1. We’ve never been exposed to this much stimuli in human history.

  2. We’re turning to external aids (phones, alcohol, drugs) for relief more than ever.

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to return control to the mind and body. Winning this life-long battle comes down to one simple quote by my favorite scientific author, Viktor Frankl:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Your Posture Is Linked to Your Wellbeing

There are many efficacious ‘holistic’ strategies for lowering stress levels. Among these include slow breathing, meditation, yoga, walking, going outdoors, and drinking water. Many of these influence the action of the vagus nerve (cranial nerve X), allowing us to influence our heart rate, respiration rate, digestion, and more.

If you ever feel out of control, remind your body that you’re in control by taking a breath, doing a short mindfulness practice, or simply going outdoors. This stuff really works.

There is one strategy that very few talk about, however. Your posture may be the dark horse that you need to alleviate unnecessary stress within the mind and body. We know that posture can reflect our emotions (cue the winner or loser of a boxing match), but can it also work the other way? Can your posture influence your very emotional state?

According to neuroscientific research, you can alter your mood by simply changing your body posture.

In one study, researchers recruited volunteers to sit in various positions throughout different stress scenarios. Using a startle eye-blink response test, it was revealed that people were less anxious in an open position (good posture) versus a closed position (bad posture) when there was no emerging threat present. But, interestingly, when the stress cue was present, the pattern was reversed and the eye-blink was higher in the open position, while people seemed less anxious in a defensive posture.

Why are these findings significant?

An elevated score on an eye-blink response test is correlated to increased amygdala activity. This is commonly known as the ‘fear center of the brain’, being responsible for alerting the rest of the brain to potential threats. Additionally, it is associated with processing memories, affecting a wide variety of emotional responses, and spurring addiction.

Knowing this, it’s very natural to assume a ‘defensive position’ when under attack. This is what your body wants to do. For the majority of the time, however, we don’t need to position ourselves in this way.

[In] our everyday lives, defensive body postures may actually reduce stress when we’re confronted with a threat. But if the coast is clear, our posture may be sending signals back to our brain that there’s still a threat out there. Our brains get the message to stay in fight-or-flight mode, and we stay stressed out. — Dr. Joseph Wielgosz

How Can We Alter Posture to Lower Stress?

Two seconds is all it takes to adjust your posture and improve your mood, stress levels, and overall wellbeing. Here is a short checklist I’ve curated to ensure that your postural habits are optimizing each area of your physical and mental health. Keep in mind that everyone is different, so you may need to tweak some of these slightly for your anatomy and environment.

Your Daily Posture Checklist

  • Find a stable base, with three points of support — your seat, plus either both feet in a chair or both knees for sitting on the ground. A standing desk is never a bad idea either.

  • Find a chair that has strong lumbar support and will allow you to keep a tall spine.

  • Keep your shoulders relaxed and rolled slightly back.

  • Ensure that any technology can be viewed at eye level without straining the neck.

  • Take slow, controlled breaths from the diaphragm. There is no need for tension up in the shoulder, upper traps, and neck.

The beauty of postural changes is that they’re extremely easy to employ…initially. The key is building a habit that will last, so you don’t feel yourself hunching over again in ten minutes. If you’re looking to improve your postural endurance, take a look at my top tips here.

Important Reminders

We’re still very much in the early stages of research around posture and its effects on the nervous system. Take each study you see with a grain of salt, but know that at the end of the day, we don’t need to overthink this either.

As Dr. Wielgosz mentions, “you can be a scientist in your own life”. Try adjusting small aspects of your posture and pay attention to the short term and long term effects on your mood and stress. Always keep in mind that your next posture is always your best posture, so ensure you take frequent breaks to change your body position and reset.

In Closing,

Your posture is a significant determinant of your stress levels and overall wellbeing. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to improve poor postural habits and optimize our biomechanics to improve the quality of life.

Next time you’re starting to slip out of control, remind yourself just how much power you have in your own skin. If you hold yourself in a way that promotes balance and equilibrium, your body will listen and begin the process of achieving homeostasis once again. Oh, and your joints will thank you as well.