We all go through bouts of helplessness and sadness related to work and relationships. With time, our emotional hurt fades, as we've adjusted or dealt with the situation. Now, researchers at the University of Auckland suggest a fix that may work more quickly than waiting out the pain: good body posture can boost our mood and alleviate symptoms of depression.
"This preliminary study suggests that adopting an upright posture may increase positive affect, reduce fatigue, and decrease self-focus in people with mild-to-moderate depression," wrote the researchers in the abstract.
Previous research has linked the effect of upright posture on mood with promising results. In a study, conducted at San Francisco State University, students were told to either walk down a hall in a slouched position, or to skip, swinging their arms in an upward motion. Slouchers reported increased feelings of depression, and lower energy than skippers. In contrast, skippers reported feeling more energetic, happier, and positive.
Science suggests modifying our posture can significantly affect our mood, but little is known whether it can aid people with depression.
In the new study, published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, author Elizabeth Broadbent and her colleagues investigated whether changing posture could reduce negative effects and fatigue in people with mild to moderate depression who were undergoing a stressful task. A total of 61 participants were randomly assigned to either an upright-posture group or a usual-posture group. Those asked to sit up straight were instructed to do the following:
1. First, they were asked to look straight ahead, straighten their backs, and level their shoulders.
2. Second, they thought about stretching the tops of their heads toward the ceiling while gently drawing their shoulder blades down and together.
The researchers placed rigid physiotherapy tape on their shoulders and backs to help them maintain this position. The usual-posture group sat how they usually do; tape was applied to their shoulders and backs, too, but this didn't affect their posture. Participants were asked to give a five-minute speech, which they would be judged; count backward from 1,022 in steps of 13; and fill out questionnaires measuring their mood symptoms throughout the activities.
The findings revealed the upright group spoke significantly more words than the usual posture group, used fewer first person singular personal pronouns, but more sadness words. The researchers noted upright shoulder angle was associated with lower negative affect, and lower anxiety across both groups. Overall, sitting upright led to more energy, less negative mood, and less self-focused, which is linked with the easing of depression symptoms.
Broadbent warns this effect also applies for people who don't have depression, but may feel a little blue. She was motivated to research the effects of posture on mood from her own personal experience.
“I noticed that I was walking with my shoulders slumped and looking at the ground. I looked up and put my shoulders back, and immediately I felt much better," Broadbent told Psychology Today.
She concluded, if this worked for her, this method could work for other people, too.
Depression is a common, but serious mood disorder causing severe symptoms that directly impact how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. Experiencing persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood; feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism; and decreased energy or fatigue for at least two weeks, are tell-tale signs of depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
A simple adjustment to posture could help lessen severe depression symptoms, alongside professional treatment. Currently, medications are very effective for treating depression, with antidepressants, such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) commonly used for treatment.
Clinical psychologists at the University of Hildesheim and Ruhr University Bochum, in Germany, found sitting in a slumped posture led psychiatric patients, formally diagnosed with depression, to recall more negative than positive words compared to the upright-sitting group. Depressed patients sitting in a upright position showed more balanced memory for both the negative and positive words. The participants were shown 15 positive (i.e., "beauty") and 16 negative words (i.e., “exhaustion") on a computer screen, and then asked to imagine themselves in a visual scene connected to each word while in a slumped or upright position. After five minutes of completing the imagination task, they were asked to recall as many words as possible.
The evidence for good posture and easing depression symptoms looks promising, but Broadbent still believes it warrants further research.
Broadbent does warn the success of posture on mental health depends on context and situation, as more research is needed to see how this works and for whom.
The science behind sitting up right and depression is still in progress, but regardless, good posture can help our overall health.
Source: Wilkes C, Kydd R, Sagar M et al. Upright posture improves affect and fatigue in people with depressive symptoms. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2017.