Published in The American Chiropractor July 1, 2021
As Doctors of Chiropractic, posture is our focus, but I find it riveting how posture can be a clear indicator of someone’s mood. What’s even more intriguing is being able to neurologically shift someone’s level of joyfulness just by altering their posture. For our patients who are suffering from anxiety and depression, that is incredibly powerful. Being able to “flip the switch” to turn on joy is something most people are unaware of and something so desperately needed in this time. Here’s where the mind-body connection really takes the lead.
When you see someone in clear distress or depression, the typical posture is kyphotic — shoulders rolled forward, anterior head posture, sitting in a slumped position, exaggerated thoracic curvature. The jaw, head, neck, and hips tend to ache from the shortening of the musculature in the anterior aspect of the body. Neurologically speaking, the amygdala is on overdrive. The emotional area of the brain is lit up, working to process trauma and pain. That is a hard-wired response to stress, a survival instinct physically manifested. Anxiety can alter the brain’s plasticity, initiating the fight-or-flight response, even when there’s no actual threat. The brain becomes hyperactive from stress with a lessened tolerance to distress, especially the amygdala. Whether that stress is perceived or actual has no impact; the responses are identical.
In contrast, someone happy or joyful tends to stand upright, head lifted, chest open, shoulders back. There’s an elevation from the ground up. It portrays confidence and poise, commanding a level of respect. The prefrontal cortex is actively running the show to control posture and cognitive function. The frontal lobe processes uncomfortable emotions and puts things into perspective, rationalizes by using logic, and calms the amygdala’s response. This is a self-regulating system of innate design.
The “old-school” design of dealing with stress worked well in earlier times when someone could run, escape from danger, and have time to recover. It would allow their body the time and space required to return to homeostasis. In today’s busy lifestyle, there’s typically no time before the next stress rushes in, especially with the constant barrage from devices and social media. So we tend to live in a heightened state of stress on a consistent basis.
Here’s where it gets interesting. By actively changing your posture and doing something as simple as walking, stretching, or yoga, you can alter your brain function. Going for a walk encourages different areas of the brain to engage, which helps calm anxiety and depression. To be clear, I’m not saying there isn’t a need for medication for clinical levels of mental health disorders, but these movements can also be powerful adjuncts to prescription therapy. For people suffering from milder anxiety or depression, these tools can have a profound impact on downshifting distress. Stimulating the brain properly can give someone a fighting chance to stave off depression and anxiety.
A fascinating research study at Duke University in 2015 showed:
“We all experience a host of common life stressors such as the death of a family member, medical illness, and financial uncertainty. While most of us are resilient to such stressors, continuing to function normally, for a subset of individuals, experiencing these stressors increases the likelihood of developing treatment-resistant, chronic psychological problems, including depression and anxiety. It is thus paramount to identify predictive markers of risk, particularly those reflecting fundamental biological processes that can be targets for intervention and prevention. Using data from a longitudinal study of 340 healthy young adults, we demonstrate that individual differences in threat-related amygdala reactivity predict psychological vulnerability to life stress occurring as much as one to four years later. These results highlight a readily assayed biomarker, threat-related amygdala reactivity, which predicts psychological vulnerability to commonly experienced stressors and represents a discrete target for intervention and prevention.”1
Keep in mind, this study was done years before the COVID-19 pandemic and could already predict a higher level of treatment-resistant anxiety and depression for those people with heightened amygdala function. Sustaining the onslaught of news and social media in the past year has undoubtedly increased stimulation to the world’s collective amygdala. For those more prone to processing the emotionally driven medical, political, and racial reports, it is a nightmare waiting for the next years to come. Anxiety and depression are already a problem with exponential growth, with statistics showing anxiety disorders as the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 18.1% of the population every year. “Major depressive disorder” is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15 to 44.3.2
As Doctors of Chiropractic, I believe we have a calling to educate our patients on how to process the trauma and reset the neurological paths to protect and support our patients’ mental and physical health. Encouraging our patients to incorporate ways to stimulate their prefrontal cortex in daily life can help downregulate the heightened amygdala response. Simple activities like walking, meditating, stretching, or incorporating yoga poses into their day can go a long way toward improving mental health. These are examples that they can teach their families, which can have a profound ripple effect in decreasing overall anxiety.