One of my most inspiring teachers, actress Carol Mayo Jenkins, would be pleasantly [un]surprised to learn that one of her adages has been confirmed time and time again by science. I'll never forget the class when she said to us (and I paraphrase):
Feel this. Do you know a body of joy cannot hold despair, and a body of despair cannot hold joy.
She told us to stand tall, arms outstretched, face towards the ceiling; from there, we were to find the emotion of despair. One by one we each collapsed and closed slowly, unable to maintain such an upright, celebratory, and open position. That day was important; it was the day I realized that my kinesthetic awareness could affect how I experience my life.
Those of us that identify as artistic, creative types often deal with levels of anxiety and depression, sometimes very mild, sometimes more severe. We Millennials, Gen X-ers, Baby Boomers, and Boomlets aren't the first to deal with them - a glance over the heartbreaking Heiligenstadt Testament confirms that. And yet, though we have the advantages of modern medicine, we also live with the effects of our modern technology.
iHunch refers to slumping by lengthening the neck forward and looking down, and it puts enormous pressure on the small bones of the neck. When our head hangs down this way, rather than balancing on the spine, our 10-12 pound noggin exerts around 60 pounds of pressure on the neck. Ouchies.
What is clear is the physical discomfort of this posture. But what's more interesting is what happens mentally and emotionally as a result of it. Research about this connection is referred to as embodiment theories of emotion, which seeks to name the relationship between our somatovisceral and motoric systems (e.g., mood and posture). If you're like me you wonder which system informs the other...does mood inform posture or does posture inform mood? Which one is the more powerful leader in the relationship? Could it be possible to treat depression with physicality as well as cognitive and chemical therapies?
Researchers in New Zealand hypothesized that iHunch-ian posture leads to greater stress response. Using methods in line with psychological research standards, they measured perceived threat, self-esteem, task persistence and cardiovascular response in randomized slumped and upright groups.
The study found that the slumped group, in comparison to the upright group, showed: greater feelings of fear in social threat situations; markedly lower self-esteem; spoke fewer words overall, but greater numbers of negative and self-focused language; and an overall lower pulse point. While the cardiovascular measure did not align with the hypothesis, the psychological factors were confirmed: slumped posture leads to greater stress response.
Since the health dangers of psychological stress are well known. the potential of learning that something as simple as posture can affect outcomes is hopeful and exciting.
A study in Germany, whose test group consisted of 30 clinically depressed individuals, showed the same collection of 32 words to both slumped and upright groups, and after a 5-minute 'distractor' task, the patients were asked to recall as many words as possible. Those allowed to slump recalled more negative than positive words, while the upright group recalled a balance, if not slightly more positive words.
Researchers in Brazil found that among those diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, not only was there a tendency for slumping posture during an episode, but a vast majority slumped on the left side. During remission the patients would "grow out of" the slumping posture.
I find the New Zealand study most intriguing. That a body of despair (ie: slumped posture) could create a depressive mind speaks to the power of the relationship between our mind and body. In a body of despair, is it worth trying to think happy thoughts?
Here on the blog, I've avoided the word "posture" for a long time, and even now only use it as a blanket term for body placement, not as an ideal to achieve.
In most of my essays posture is discussed as a means to avoiding injury and playing with ease. Coming across the iHunch article and subsequently reading the cited studies cast a different light on the upward ease I've so often written about.
As a person who finds herself anxious from time to time (but less and less, thankfully), there's a glimmer of hope and spark of confidence that comes from reading these findings. The possible therapeutic interventions, and how noninvasive they are, only strengthen my personal theories about the relationship between body and emotions. I start to wonder if kinesthetic mindfulness in my practice can subconsciously help me find ways out of those anxious moments.
Viewed this way, the tenets of an approach like Alexander Technique take on a new depth. Not only are they helpful in the usual way, to avoid tension while playing, but they become exemplars for an integrated physical and cognitive therapy about letting go and allowing ourselves to literally rise out of the weight of our troubles.
It's a beautiful notion, really.
Janette Zamudio Canales, Táki Athanássios Cordás, Juliana Teixeira Fiquer, André Furtado Cavalcante, Ricardo Alberto Moreno, "Posture and body image in individuals with major depressive disorder: a controlled study" Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria, 2010, Vol. 32, No. 4, p. 375-380.
Amy Cuddy, "Your iPhone is Ruining your Posture - and your Mood" The New York Times, Sunday Review. published Dec. 12, 2015.
Johannes Michalak, Judith Mischnat, Tobias Teismann, "Sitting Posture Makes a Difference - Emobidment Effects on Depressive Memory Bias" Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 2014, Vol. 21, Issue 6, p. 519-524.
Shwetha Nair, Mark Sagar, John Sollers, III, Nathan Consedine, Elizabeth Broadbent, Do Slumped and Upright Postures Affect Stress Responses? A Randomized Trial Health Psychology, 2015, Vol. 34, No. 6, p. 632-641, published by the American Psychological Association.