Guest Expert Post: How Posture Affects Mood
– And How Improving It Can Be Used to Treat Depression and Anxiety Disorders
This week, we’re hearing from Steve Farmer, a LUMOback neighbor and our first guest expert. a Stanford Ph.D. and former Harvard University Research Fellow, is a comparative cultural historian whose academic research focuses on the interaction between brain and culture in the evolution of premodern human traditions. As his “hobby,” he is also owner and Director of Avalon Yoga in Palo Alto, California, the home of one of the only university-level Yoga Teacher Training Programs in the world.
The idea that improving posture offers a simple way to treat back pain is confirmed in a long line of medical studies. A search of the National Library of Medicine (PubMed) database of the words “posture” and “back pain” turns up over two thousand articles written since the early 1950s that deal with this issue. Recent papers suggest that use of a postural biofeedback device – the same general type as the LUMOback sensor – can improve back pain in as little as a single session. For one recent paper, go here.
Far less obvious is the fact that fixing posture can also help with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. The relevant literature here goes all the way back to Darwin’s On the Expression of Emotion in Men and Animals (1871) and William James’ Principles of Psychology (1890), which developed the first full theory that linked posture with emotions.
Many who have practiced yoga, pilates, dance or similar disciplines for long periods can attest from experience to the potent links between posture and emotion. But how can those links be explained in biological and evolutionary terms? And how can they be exploited therapeutically?
A famous article published by Price and his collaborators in 1994, cited in more than 500 later articles, expanded on Darwin’s ideas by tying those shifts to the ways in which conflicts are typically resolved in social animals. In nearly all social animals, as Darwin first suggested, during conflict social status is typically signaled by exaggerated changes in postural state (see the pictures of dogs below from Darwin’s 1871 masterpiece). Animals at the top of a social hierarchy in times of conflict typically communicate their status with exaggerated upright postures, while subordinates signal their positions in opposing ways.
Dogs assuming typical aggressive/dominant and subordinate postural positions, which Darwin argued present reverse musculoskeletal mirrors of one another.
Normally this ritualistic behavior prevents costly intraspecies conflict, which is avoided unless subordinates intend to challenge the positions of the dominant animals in the hierarchy.
In the 1990s, an elegant series of animal studies, the best known associated with Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University, showed that these types of social conflicts are linked to major hormonal changes, suggesting one of the biological mechanisms underlying the links between postural changes and emotions. While there are many complexities in these relationships, as Sapolsky suggests in a recent paper, there is no doubt that the ancient evolutionary links between posture and emotion are preserved in modern human behavior.
An already classic study published by a group at Harvard and Columbia in 2010 (“Power Posing”) demonstrated for the first time that levels of two neurohormones associated reciprocally with social status as well as confidence or anxiety – testosterone and cortisol – can be forced to change in minutes simply by shifting the postural state of subjects into exaggerated “open” (dominant) or “closed” (subordinate) positions.
The therapeutic implications of these findings are strongly emphasized by one of the study’s authors, Amy Cuddy of Harvard, in a Ted Talk suggestively entitled “How Your Body Language Defines Who You Are.” Cuddy argues for actively manipulating posture to reap the emotional advantages of the ancient evolutionary links between posture and human neurohormones.
One of the ironies in this is familiar to those of us who study the medical implications of cultural change: Due to the vast cultural changes that accompanied the shift from hunting and gathering societies to agricultural to massive industrial societies, many of the causes of modern mood disorders may have little to do with social status but simply with maladaptive postural changes associated with modern work conditions (see cartoon below).
Is assuming a correct upright posture an effective Rx for anxiety and depression? That’s what evolutionary theory and recent biological research suggest. The result is that manipulating postures provides an effective tool in treating mood disorders without the need for drug or even talk therapy.
One implication of this is that biofeedback devices like LUMOback have applications that go far beyond simply treating back pain.
Part of posture involves the control of balance, and in the light of the new research on posture and emotion it is no surprise to find that an immense literature links balance problems with general anxiety disorder (GAD). Recent studies by Orit Bart and her colleagues at the University of Tel Aviv have, in fact, recently shown that treating balance disorders on their own also serves as an effective behavior treatment of GAD.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the view of LUMO BodyTech Inc.