FEELING STRESSED? MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT SITTING & STANDING UP STRAIGHT
We’ve often heard that maintaining good posture helps reduce discomfort and physical stress in the body, particularly in the spine, neck, and shoulders. It seems simple: Improve your posture, improve your health. It’s not like I don’t believe that—it’s just that I don’t seem able to follow through. I’ve posted on this a couple of times in the past: Good Posture: It will Improve your Confidence & Your Health in May 2018 and Posture Problems? in August 2022.
But now I’ve read an online article that tells us that spending hours every day bent over our computers or balled up in a chair consulting our phones also affects our psychological stress. Hopefully, this bad news will make me more aware of when I’m slouching and work on strengthening my core muscles and I’ll start sitting and standing up straight. If you also have a posture challenge, please read these excerpts from the NPR.org October 24, 2023 post by Rachel Faulkner White, Stressed out? It might not just be in your head. How your muscles affect your mood
A lot of us associate our neck and back pain with spending hours hunched over our devices. We also know that good posture and core strength can help prevent those aches and pains. But researchers say it can also help us feel less stress.
It all comes down to the inner part of our adrenal glands—the adrenal medulla—which releases adrenaline into the body, says Peter Strick, a leading neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh.
When we’re stressed, the brain sends a signal to the adrenal medulla. That signal triggers the fight-or-flight response: increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, nausea, and other unpleasant symptoms.
Until recently, most scientists believed that movement and posture had nothing to do with how the brain and the adrenal medulla communicate. In fact, Strick says he had long been skeptical of claims that exercises like yoga and pilates could decrease stress. “I need to see that there’s a neural connection; that there’s a real biological basis,” he says.
Mapping neurological pathways throughout the body
In 2016, Strick decided to study the connection between posture and stress by using a method he pioneered in the late 90s. Strick invented a process where he could inject a virus into an organ to trace the neural networks that connect the brain and the muscles.
“So we injected the adrenal medulla with a virus, and we traced it back into the brain all the way to the cerebral cortex and then mapped which cortical areas influenced the adrenal,” he says. “And that’s where the surprise came.”
Essentially, Strick and his research team discovered that our stress response is controlled by more than just the ‘thinking’ part of the brain. Other parts of the brain, including those which control our muscles, are also sending signals to the adrenal medulla. And the area of the brain that communicates with the adrenal glands receives signals from the core muscles as well. So, strengthening those muscles, Strick says, can modulate that stressful, fight-or-flight response.
Think of it as a three-way conversation between your core muscles, adrenal glands, and brain — all talking to one another and influencing your mental well-being.
“There’s a clear link between how we move, think, and feel,” says Strick. “The muscles that control posture, our core muscles, have an impact on an organ that is involved in stress.”
Want to feel less stressed? Try strengthening your core and sitting up straight
When we’re hunched over our phones or tapping away at a computer all day, many of us feel more mentally drained, stressed, or anxious. Strick recommends strengthening the core muscles so that sitting upright all day becomes more natural. “Slump and then stand up straight,” he says “And see what that does to your mood and affect.”
He also says this discovery was a wake-up call for his own health. He credits his children, who nudged him to try pilates and yoga years ago. “And I said, come on, you know, give me a break. I don’t have time for this crap,” he says. “But as it turns out, they’re right.”