As a fitness professional or corrective exercise specialist, you are already aware that a client’s posture holds clues about their musculoskeletal health and movement potential. However, have you ever considered that you can also use the results of a postural assessment to gain insight into your client’s mental state of mind and emotional well-being? In this revealing article you will learn how postural assessments can provide information about a clients’ musculoskeletal and myofascial system and also inform you about their past and current mental/emotional experience (Levine, 2010). In addition, you will learn ways to utilize this information to design more effective corrective exercise programs that not only help clients feel better mentally, but also enable them to move better, eliminate their aches and pains and experience improved health and happiness.
- The reader will learn about what emotions accompany various types of stress
- The reader will learn about how emotions affect our posture
- The reader will learn strategies they can use to help clients become aware of and correct their own postural and emotional habits.
Physical Actions Equal Mental Reactions
The survival of any organism depends on its ability to recognize a threat and either fight against it, flee away from it, stay still and hope it goes away, or lie down and submit to the danger (Maser & Seligman, 1977). These physical actions to either fight, flee, freeze or submit are accompanied by emotions that correspond with each action. For example, fighting is usually accompanied by anger and ferocity, fleeing is paired with fear and panic, freezing with shock and terror, and submission with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness (Levine, 2010).
Humans deal with hundreds of real and perceived threats every day. For example, ongoing experiences of muscle and joint pain can present a real threat to survival affecting one’s ability to stay healthy, vibrant and ward off potential dangers. If initial attempts to get rid of these aches and pains are unsuccessful, a person can end up feeling “stuck” in a situation which leads them to feeling helpless and hopeless and submitting to a lifetime of pain and limited function. Other people who have experienced chronic pain for a long time may try to stop it by undergoing surgery. Often such surgeries prove unsuccessful and the person is left, understandably, feeling angry at the medical community (and the surgeon in particular) and wants to “fight” or lash out at those who have done them wrong (Levine, 2010).
There are hundreds of other types of threats that people encounter on a regular basis that can affect one’s mood, emotional health and mental state. A strained relationship, financial problems, or an unfulfilling work environment can cause feelings of ongoing anxiety that accompany an underlying desire to “flee” from the situation. Alternatively, someone who has been in a car crash, experienced the trauma of war or watched a loved one die can end up frozen in a cycle of ongoing “shock” constantly having to deal with the emotions that accompany such a horrific experience (Sherington, 2010).
Enduring Emotions Help Shape Our Posture
Over time, the body learns from these recurrent emotions and creates patterns that repeat themselves in the brain chemistry, nervous system, viscera, myofascial and musculoskeletal system. These repeated patterns manifest themselves in all the cells of the body and ultimately become evident in the form of ingrained postural responses (Hanna, 1988). For example, excessive and constant muscle tension in the muscles of the lower back (e.g., excessive lumbar lordosis), neck and jaw are characteristic of someone who is constantly preparing themselves to fight and/or flee and is accompanied by emotions of anger, rage and anxiety (Hanna, 1988). On the other hand, a rounded upper back and shoulders (i.e., excessive thoracic kyphosis) and “knock knees” that move toward the midline, are all defensive postures that reveal someone who feels helpless and hopeless regarding the ongoing stresses they currently experience or have encountered in the past. These postures become stored as habits in their musculoskeletal and myofascial system (Hanna, 1988).
Practicing Postural and Emotional Empathy
Developing a kinesthetic awareness of various postures, and the emotions/feelings that accompany these positions, will enable you to empathize with your client’s situation and help you design appropriate corrective strategies to help them undo problematic postures. You can develop posture/emotion awareness skills with the following two exercises.
This exercise is designed to make you more aware of how your posture affects your emotions and mental experience surrounding a particular event/thought.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Slightly knock your knees together, round your shoulders and upper back forward and look down at the ground. Now say aloud, “I am the king/queen of the world”. How do you feel? Not very convincing right? Now stand upright with your feet and knees pointing forward, your shoulders pulled back and your spine upright and eyes looking forward. Repeat the words, “I am the king/queen of the world”. Much more convincing! You can now appreciate that although you were trying to convey the same message in both postures, the more upright posture affected your confidence and mood allowing you to be much more self-assured, assertive and believable.
This exercise is designed to make you more aware of how your state of mind affects your posture and the subsequent reactions in your myofascial and musculoskeletal system.
- Assume your normal standing posture. Close your eyes and imagine that you are in a deserted alleyway on a dark and stormy night. Now imagine that there is a man sneaking up behind you with a knife raised above your head getting ready to come down and stab you in the back. How does your body feel? Tight and tensed right? Now assume the same posture and close your eyes again. However, this time imagine that someone you love is wrapping their arms around you giving you a warm and gentle embrace. How does your body feel now? Your muscles relaxed and you had a warm feeling in your stomach, right? You can now appreciate that your thoughts, and the emotions that accompany those feelings, affect your entire body.
Practice these exercises several times and share them with your loved ones and friends. Once you feel comfortable with these exercises, try them with your clients. It is recommended, however, that you introduce these strategies with a client only once you have developed a certain level of trust and rapport with them. This is because many people are still a little hesitant to accept the magnitude of the mind/body relationship and may shy away from these concepts if you introduce them too early on in their corrective exercise program.
Change Your Posture, Change Your Life
As a qualified fitness professional, you know that performing a thorough postural analysis to uncover musculoskeletal imbalances during the initial stages of your client’s program is essential. This type of assessment uncovers various postural imbalances like whether your client has excessive thoracic kyphosis (i.e., a rounded upper back and shoulders), excessive lumbar lordosis (i.e., an arched lower back), and anterior pelvic tilt (i.e., a forward tilting pelvis), etc. (Price & Bratcher, 2010; Kendall, et al. 2005). Once you utilize the above exercises to make your client aware of the mind-body relationship between their emotions and their posture, you can coach them to become more aware of those times throughout the day that their bad mood or negative state of mind is affecting their posture. You can then encourage them to change their mood by performing corrective exercises that you have taught them as part of their ongoing program to address their poor postural habits.
For example, let’s consider a client that has excessive thoracic kyphosis (i.e., a rounded upper back and shoulders), and has communicated to you either directly or indirectly, that they feel as though people “walk all over them” both at work and in their significant relationships. You can coach this client that the next time they feel this way they should perform the exercise you have taught them to help encourage thoracic spine extension and shoulder retraction to help improve their posture. The subsequent repositioning of their body/posture will increase their feelings of self-confidence and improve their ability to “stand up for themselves” and create more positive relationships for themselves both at work and at home.
Now that you understand how posture affects a person’s mood, feelings and emotions, you can teach your clients about this relationship, help them become more aware of their unhelpful postural habits, correct any deviations and ultimately increase their happiness, health and vitality.
Hanna, T. (1988). Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health. Cambridge: De Capo Press.
Kendall, F.P. et al. (2005). Muscles Testing and Function with Posture and Pain (5th ed.). Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Levine, P. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice. How The Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Maser, J., & Seligman, M. (1977). Psychopathology: experimental models. San Francisco, CA: W.H.Freeman & Co.
Price, J. & Bratcher, M. (2010). The BioMechanics Method Corrective Exercise Educational Program. San Diego, CA: The BioMechanics Press.
Sherington, C. (2010). The Integrative Action of the Nervous System. New York, NY: Ayer Company.