Our posture is a physical representation of who we are. The way that we hold ourselves, and the way that we move (or don’t move) are deeply connected to our thoughts and our emotions. Specific emotions result in characteristic postures and body reactions. Conversely, holding a specific posture makes it easier to feel (or block) certain emotions. Having a greater appreciation for this body-mind connection can help us when we are feeling stuck physically or emotionally.
Our bodies are programmed to react to emotion. When an emotion is triggered, a specific set of chemicals are released that cause the body to react physically to that emotion. When someone is suddenly angered, they immediately tense up and may raise their fists to punch someone or something. When sad, their shoulders slump forward and head tilts forward. When joy is felt, the muscles in their face contract to produce a smile. It is easy to see how an emotion can cause the corresponding bodily reaction, particularly when the response is overt such as when we feel anger, grief or joy.
But what happens when you don’t express an emotion when it is triggered? Think about how often you feel an emotion but then suppress the urge to respond to it. Consider instances when you are faced with stressors that break you up on the inside but you must appear unshaken on the outside. When emotions are not expressed, the body holds tension within itself to hold the body tight in order to suppress the unwelcomed emotion.
For example, if an employee gets reprimanded by his boss, he may feel angered, belittled or embarrassed, but he just politely stands there without overtly expressing his upset in order to appear professional. When we look at this person his head will likely be lowered and his shoulders hunched forward to display the posture of the emotions that are “stuck” in his body. If he’s later able to release his feelings, his posture will only be held temporarily while the emotion is still active in his body. However, if he becomes accustomed to habitually suppressing these specific emotions, he may take on the corresponding posture on an ongoing basis.
So we can see how emotions affect posture, but how does posture affect your emotional wellbeing? Recently in my office, I have noticed that more parents are bringing in their teenaged daughters – the main concern being anxiety. Upon examination, I note an anterior head carriage with forward slumped shoulders and a forward curved lumbar spine. I may be over-reaching but I feel that this is the type of posture that is usually displayed while using a mobile device. Most people have a tendency to tilt down their neck while sending and reading text messages. The pressure on the spine doubles for every inch that the head tilts forward. Think about the amount of time that most teens spend texting, reading email, being on social media or playing games on their phone or tablet. Keeping your body in this position for a prolonged period can predispose you to the emotions that are associated with that posture. Now think about the posture you display when you feel anxious… your shoulders are hunched forward, your head is slouched and you lean forward. It’s the same posture!
Simply changing the position of your body may help you to navigate through tough emotions. When you’re worried about something, simply sitting up straight, stretching your shoulders back and opening up your chest to take in a deep breath will do wonders to lessen the feelings of anxiety.
The relationship between our body and mind (emotions) runs both ways. Our emotions directly influence the way our body reacts, but the form (posture) of our body can also trigger and support our emotions. Understanding how and where you hold tension in your body may provide you with a deeper understanding of yourself.
“The shape, position, tension and tone of your spine determines the shape, position and tone of your life.” (Dr. Donald Epstein)
Copyright Dr. Julie Doobay 2019