The next time you’re feeling sad and depressed, pay close attention to your posture. According to cognitive scientists, you’ll likely be slumped over with your neck and shoulders curved forward and head looking down.
While it’s true that you’re sitting this way because you’re sad, it’s also true that you’re sad because you’re sitting this way. This philosophy, known as embodied cognition, is the idea that the relationship between our mind and body runs both ways, meaning our mind influences the way our body reacts, but the form of our body also triggers our mind.
In large part due to Amy Cuddy’s widly popular 2012 TED talk, most of us know that two minutes of "power poses" a day can change how we feel about ourselves. This isn’t just about displaying confidence to others around; this is about actually changing your hormones—increased levels of testosterone and decreased levels of cortisol, or the stress hormone, in the brain.
"The brain has an area that reflects confidence, but once that area is triggered it doesn’t matter exactly how it’s triggered," says Richard Petty, professor of psychology at Ohio State University. "It can be difficult to distinguish real confidence from confidence that comes from just standing up straight … these things go both ways just like happiness leads to smiling, but also smiling leads to happiness."
When it comes to posture, Petty explains that the way we ultimately feel has a lot to do with the associations we have with being taller. For example, if you take two people and you put one on a chair that’s above the other person, the one that’s looking down will feel more powerful because "we have all these associations" with height and power that "gets triggered automatically when certain movements are made," he says. The function of your body posture tells your brain that you’re powerful, which, in turn, affects your attitude.
In a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Petty along with other researchers instructed 71 college students to either "sit up straight" and "push out [their] chest" or "sit slouched forward" with their "face looking at [their] knees." While holding their assigned posture, the students were asked to list either three positive or negative personal traits they thought would contribute to their future job satisfaction and professional performance. Afterward, the students were asked to take a survey where they rated themselves on how well they thought they would perform as a future professional.
The researchers found that how the students rated themselves depended on the posture they kept when they wrote the positive or negative traits. Those who were in the upright position believed in the positive and negative traits they wrote down while those in the slouched over position weren’t convinced of their positive or negative traits. In other words, when the students were in the upright, confident position, they trusted their own thoughts whether those thoughts were positive or negative. On the other hand, when the students sat in a powerless position, they didn’t trust anything they wrote down whether it was positive or negative.
However, those in the upright position likely had an easier time thinking of "empowering, positive" traits about themselves to write down while those in the slouched over position probably had an easier time recalling "hopeless, helpless, powerless, and negative" feelings, according to Erik Peper, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University.
In a series of experiments, 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. Like Cuddy, Peper’s research finds that it only takes two minutes to change your hormones, meaning you can basically change the chemistry in your brain while waiting for your food to heat up in the microwave.
Since posture affects our mood and thoughts so much, the increase of collapsed sitting and walking—from sitting in front of our computer to looking down at our smartphones—may very much have an effect on the rise of depression in recent years. Peper and his team of researchers suggest that posture is a significant contributor to decreased energy levels and depression. Slouching is also known to result in frequent headaches and neck and shoulder pains.
With so much research proving the influence posture has on our mind, Peper suggests hanging photos of people you love slightly higher on the wall or above your desk so that you have to look up. Also, adjust your rear view mirror slightly higher so that you have to sit up taller while driving. If you need reminders, Petty advises setting reminders on your phone, computer, or even a Post-It note. When you do have negative thoughts, instead of validating them by slumping over or bending your head, Petty says that you should write them down on a piece of paper, then throw that piece of paper away in the trash.
"People who throw those negative thoughts into the trash can are less affected by them then people who had the same thoughts but symbolically put them in their pocket," he says. "It’s this idea that it’s not what we think that’s important; it’s how much we trust what we think."