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Sit Up Straight - A Simple Technique to Feel Better and Have More Energy

by Catherine Dowling(more info)

listed in mind body, originally published in issue 220 - February 2015

Sit up straight, a command never far from the lips of mothers just a couple of generations ago, is not something you hear very often today.  But depression is something we hear a lot about. Depression, the black dog, funk, the blues affects an extraordinary number of people - roughly 9% of  people  in the UK suffer from combined anxiety and depression disorder[1] 7.7% in Ireland[2] and in the United States 6.9% of the population suffer major depression.[3]

 

Sit Up Straight 220

 

In the thinking of most people, depression and posture are not commonly associated, but scientists from the San Francisco State University have found a link between the two.  Their findings could significantly help people manage their depression at no cost and with no side-effects.

The most common treatments for depression are drugs and cognitive therapy.  An ever increasing range of anti-depressants aim to affect the chemical make-up of the brain - inhibit the production of some chemicals and promote the release of the feel good endorphins and serotonin. Depression is closely linked to negative self-talk and catastrophizing, so ingrained as to be habitual. Self-talk has a marked effect on mood. Cognitive therapy aims to restructure the way the depressed person thinks by changing or reframing their inner dialogue. Both treatments focus on the brain - drugs to change the chemical mix in the brain, cognitive therapy to change the pattern of thoughts passing through that brain. Undeniably, both treatments can be effective, often life-saving, but what has been left out of the equation is the rest of the human body.

Body based psychotherapy has demonstrated that the body and brain form a holistic unit. The brain, through the nervous system, affects every aspect of the body, but the connection is not just one way. The body can and does influence the structure of the brain as well as the content of the mind. Several studies have shown that simple, regular exercise is more effective in the treatment of depression than drug therapy[4] yet movement and posture are frequently overlooked when developing treatment plans for depression.

In 1992, a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated a progressive increase in the rate of depression worldwide over the previous 50 years.[5] At the same time, the straight back and upright posture has gone rapidly out of fashion. Beginning in the 1920s slouching with hips thrust forward replaced the erect posture as a mark of sophistication and confident ease.[6] Furniture designers quickly followed this trend. As someone with chronic lower back problems, I know from the pain I experience that the design of almost every chair, couch, seat and bench encourages slouching. The advent of hand held computers and smart phones has exacerbated this trend towards poor posture. Several studies have shown clear links between poor posture and both negative thinking and low energy - both features of depression.

A 2004 study examined the effects of upright and slumped posture on the ability of college students to recall both positive and negative thoughts.[7] Participants were asked to generate both positive and negative thoughts in upright and slouched positions. The results show that it is significantly easier to generate positive thoughts when body posture is upright. At a rate of two to one, participants also reported that negative thoughts were easier to generate in the slumped position than when sitting upright. “When sitting upright and looking upwards, it was difficult and for many almost impossible to recall hopeless, helpless, powerless, and negative memories and easier to recall empowering, positive memories,”[8] the authors, Erik Peper and I-Mei Lin reported.

Depression is also marked by decreased energy levels - it’s often difficult for people suffering from depression to drag themselves through the day partly because they have so little energy. In a 2012 study,[9] researchers asked participants to rate their perceived energy level when walking in a slouched manner and when performing opposite arm skipping (raising the right arm at the same time as the left leg and vice versa), an activity that also involves looking up. Slouch walking significantly decreased energy levels for people with a history of depression and opposite arm skipping while looking up “rapidly and significantly” increased the energy levels of all participants compared to slouch walking. In addition, Professor Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School has demonstrated that body posture, in this case taking a confident, powerful standing or sitting position for a mere two minutes, increases testosterone and reduces cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the body.[10]

In the depths of depression, it can be difficult to straighten the spine and pull the shoulders back, but these studies show clearly that sitting and standing up straight has a significant effect on the way we feel. Retraining posture takes awareness and practice over time, but it can be done. It’s helpful to tape reminders in strategic places - on the computer, the mirror, over the sink, as a bookmark, on our Kindle if we have one. With persistence, posture changes. It’s not a complete cure for depression, but posture and movement are important tools to add to the range of options available for managing depression, elevating mood and increasing energy levels. Posture change does not require a prescription or a therapist - it’s free - and the only side effect is that it makes for a healthy, supple spine.

References

1.         Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England, 2007, Results of a Household Survey, NHS, The Information Center for Health and Social Care. 2007. www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB02931/adul-psyc-morb-res-hou-sur-eng-2007-rep.pdf

2.         Depression: The Symptoms, The Statistics, The Help, Irish Independent, July 26, 2004.

3.         Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings, US Dept. of Health and Human Services. National Institute of Mental Health www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/major-depression-among-adults.shtml 2012.

4.         Babyak, M., et al. Exercise Treatment for Major Depression. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, 633-638. 2000.

5.         Weissman, Myrna et. al. Changing Rate of Major Depression: Cross National Comparisons, Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 268, No. 21. December 1992.

6.         Gokhale, Esther, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, Pendo Press, US. p. 15. 2008,

7.         Wilson, V., Peper, E., The Effects of Upright and Slumped Postures on the Recall of Positive and Negative Thoughts, Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Vlo. 29, No. 3, September 2004.

8.         Peper, Erik, Lin, I-Mei, Increase or Decrease Depression: How Body Postures Influence Your Energy Level, Biofeedback, Vol. 40, Issue 3, pp. 125-130. 2012.

9.         Pepper, Erik, Lin, I-Mei, Increase or Decrease Depression: How Body Postures Influence Your Energy Level, Biofeedback, Vol. 40, Issue 3, pp. 125-130, 2012.

10.       Cuddy, Amy, Your Body Shapes Who You Are, www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_shapes_who_you_are

Links to Published Works

Rebirthing and Breathwork:  A Powerful Technique for Personal Transformation:

Radical Awareness:  Five Practices for a Fully Engaged Life: (To be published in Dec. 2014)

Rebirthing:  Breathwork for Transformation in Yoga Therapy Ireland:

Rebirthing and Psychotherapy:  The Micro and Macro Levels of Integration in Inside Out, Journal of the Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy

Chasing Normal in Rkvry Quarterly Literary Magazine 

Rebirthing and Domestic Abuse in The Healing Breath:  A Journal of Breathwork Practice, Psychology and Spirituality.  

Breathing In A Circle:  Transforming Consciousness Through Breathing in Positive Health:  Integrated Medicine for the 21st Century.

The Breath of Feeling:  How Our Breathing Affects Our Emotions in Inside Out:  The Journal for the Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy

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About Catherine Dowling

Catherine Dowling BA Dip Ed MA Dip Rebirthing (Breathwork Psychotherapy) is the author of Rebirthing and Breathwork:  A Powerful Technique for Personal Transformation (Piatkus, UK, 2000) and the forthcoming Radical Awareness:  Five Practices for a Fully Engaged Life (Llewellyn Worldwide, USA, 2014).  She has almost twenty years in clinical practice as a breathwork psychotherapist in Ireland and is a former president of the International Breathwork Foundation.  Her book, Rebirthing and Breathwork, is a standard text on breathwork training programs internationally.  She has served as a consultant to the Irish Health Services Executive for the evaluation of national suicide prevention and residential child care programs.  She was also a member of the Irish Dept. of Health working group on the regulation of complementary therapists.  Catherine currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico and may be contacted via catherinedowling@yahoo.ie    www.catherinedowling.com

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