640px-Grandma_Moses_NYWTS (1)Our body position affects our emotions. You did not know it, but she must have known about it [the role of sensorimotor abilities and the theory called “embodied cognition”] all along. Yes, those affectionate directions that your grandma gave you – something like “sit back, sit up straight, and don’t slump. . . . ” – have been justified scientifically by results from a recent study of upright versus slumped posture.

Should lawyers, and other professionals who work in stressful environments, have an interest in a health psychology study which has shown that sitting upright can protect against stress and help you do your work? This post will answer the question and explain why.

Research Background. Posture, considered a general feature of our bodies, not only tells others things about us, but as a sensorimotor ability, its muscle movements and positions can play a role in shaping how we think and how we can feel. For example, Botox injections’ reduction of frown lines has been shown to reduce depression. In another study, investigators showed that slumped posture highly correlates with depression. Under the theory of embodied cognition, when sensory, motor, and emotional states get activated, the effects of that activation flowing from body position can shape how we think and feel.

The current diagnostic manual used by clinicians to diagnose and treat mental health disorders includes stooped posture while sitting as one criterion for diagnosing a major depressive episode. Numerous studies over the last four decades have linked posture with mental health. This connection exists because the literature about body image indicates that we make inferences from our own body image about how we feel from observing our own posture. Integrating the results of that prior work, the authors of this post’s article stated, “Thus, if we are slumped we may infer that we are sad, and if we are sitting upright we may infer that we are confident.”

This study attempted to fill in gaps [measurement of emotion, autonomic physiology, and muscle systems] in the scientific literature about posture’s effect on mood and how we deal with stress. Its results widen understanding about the link between posture and emotions and, more specifically, the effects of muscular movements of upright sitting posture on emotions. The study applied the theory of embodied cognition to further our understanding of how muscle movements, i.e. upright versus sitting posture, can affect emotions. According to the authors, this study addressed an important question because “The question of whether postural interventions can reduce the stress response is of particular interest because it may have beneficial implications for health. Psychological stress negatively impacts immune function and health outcomes and contributes to depression.”

Sit up straight Cezanne

Research Questions and What the Researchers Did. “This experimental study examines the effects of upright versus seated posture on affective states and cardiovascular responses during a controlled stressor.” In consideration of the research background concerning posture, positive feelings, muscle activation, cardiovascular response to stress, and task persistence, this study tested the researchers’ general hypothesis that “participants in an upright posture would have higher self-esteem, lower negative affective states, higher positive affective states, and lower fear.” Additionally, the study tested two related, but more specialized hypotheses related to upright vs. slumped posture and stress: upright posture participants would have lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, and lower pulse pressure; and that using a word count analysis measure as a standard, upright posture participants would have greater task persistence.

This randomized control research study occurred in Auckland, New Zealand. The participants, healthy members of the general public, ranged in age from 18 to 67 years. Each member completed validated questionnaires designed to assess affect (a circumplex model which shows variations from combining high/low arousal and positive/negative dimensions of emotion), self-esteem (e.g. feelings of confidence or good about self), perceived threat, i.e. probability, consequences, and amount of control felt in certain situations (physical danger and social danger) in addition to providing demographic information. Physiologic monitors measured blood pressure and heart rate during the experiment, both before and after the postural intervention, which compared the effects of slumped posture [bowed head, rounded shoulders, stooped back] to upright seated posture [erect back, straight shoulders, straight back].

The researchers used a postural analysis system which captured and analyzed various angles of the head and shoulders of the participants [upright posture intervention (n=39) vs. slumped posture (n=35) groups] at different time [total time = 30 minutes] points [baseline, reading task, stress task (speech preparation and speech task)] during the study. A special voice software system analyzed the participants’ personal thoughts and feelings in their speech patterns. This tool analyzes certain linguistic dimensions (unique words, pronoun use), psychological processes (cognitive, social, and emotional), and personal concerns (occupation, leisure). The researchers measured the participants’ total word count for the reading task and the stress task as an indication of how posture can affect task persistence.

Upright seated posture

Results. Without discussing the statistical techniques used and the analyses performed, this part summarizes the key findings from the study. This research replicates and extends prior studies which have shown that posture exerts “substantial” effects on physiological and psychological outcomes.

This study, using more sophisticated physiological and psychological monitoring techniques, showed that the postural intervention produced significant results for the stress task (slumped down group faced down more, had more bend in neck and back, and more rounded shoulders), mood states (for the slumped group, high arousal positive state dropped and high arousal negative increased), perception of threat (slumped condition had more fear in social threat situations), self-esteem (slumped group had reduced ratings of self-esteem), task persistence as measured by word count (slumped group read fewer words), and cardiovascular (slumped condition had poorer physiologic outcomes).

Discussion and Take-Aways….. “Yes” answers the question asked in the beginning. Lawyers, and other professionals who work in high stress workplaces and who must deal with complex, challenging tasks can benefit from a simple piece of advice suggested by the results of this research. The authors noted several opportunity areas for future research to take their posture research results forward.

But, setting those limitations aside, the take-away from this research study (study did not involve lawyers) is this: A simple intervention – sitting upright with shoulders straight and head erect – can protect against the effects of workplace stressors commonly experienced by lawyers and others. Grandmas give this advice each day. Pay attention. Get in tune with your body. It tells you important things. Don’t slouch or slump. Those who heed this simple advice can expect to experience more enthusiasm, excitement, more self-esteem confidence, feel stronger, and persistence in verbal tasks.

A final note involves depression. Depression afflicts and impairs thousands of lawyers who suffer daily from work stress. Stress has a link with developing depression. Lawyers can use the effects of improved, upright and erect posture to gain elevated mood states. The authors suggest that this can decrease stress. In many ways, Grandma’s advice, always caring and concerned, shows the elegance of her intuition – simple things can help us live better and have a more productive and happier life. Can lawyers appreciate this simple advice? Will you try? There’s power in posture . . . .

Thank You.  Thank you very much. Dan DeFoe JD MS – Adlitem Solutions | Organization Development for Professional Services Firms and the Legal Profession: People. Projects. Practices |Web – www.adlitemsolutions.com | Email: dan@adlitemsolutions.com | Blog – www.psycholawlogy.com | Services – Organization Development Practitioner combining and leveraging 25+ years of diverse legal experience, 7+ years of allied health training and work experience, a Master of Science in Organizational Development Psychology, and educationally qualified or earned certifications in industry-leading normal (Myers-Briggs MBTI) and special business (Hogan Assessments) personality; ability (MSCEIT) and self-report (EQi 2.0) emotional intelligence; leadership (Certified Intentional Leadership Coach); and stress management assessment and tools (ARSENAL best practices system for stress resilient emotional intelligence) to partner with clients to discover needs and opportunities for growth and to design, develop, deliver, and evaluate custom interventions for individual, team, project, or organizational solutions. | Mission:  “America’s leading resource for normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, and related coaching, continuing education, training, and workshops for judges, lawyers, law schools, bar associations, healthcare, medical, and other professional services providers and their organizations and leaders.”  Please visit Adlitem Solutions and Psycholawlogy again soon. Thank you very much.

Complimentary Assessment: Contact me via email at dan@adlitemsolutions.com to arrange for a no obligation discussion and assessment of your firm’s interests or needs regarding emotional intelligence workshops, training, continuing education, or coaching. See this related post on my blog Emotional Intelligence Memo to Management: EI as a Buffer of [Lawyer] Stress in the Developmental Job Experience for more information about taking first steps.

Article Source:  Nair, S., Sagar, M., Sollers III, J., Consedine, N., & Broadbent, E. (2015). Do slumped and upright postures affect stress responses? A randomized trial. Health Psychology, 34(6), 632 (copy currently available here).

Additional Sources:  Niedenthal, P. M. (2007). Embodying emotion. Science, 316(5827), 1002-1005 (copy currently available here) |

Image Credits: Grandma Moses – Wikipedia| Sit up straight here | Upright seated posture here |

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.

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