Slouching is both the canary and the coal mine. It can signal mental health issues, and it can also perpetuate them. So how can you become more aware of your poor posture, in order to address and accommodate your mental health?
Poor posture and mental health have a two-way relationship.
First, you’ve probably experienced posture changes in response to emotions. When you’re sad and depressed, your head and shoulders might slump forward. When you’re anxious, you might notice your shoulders creeping up toward your ears, or your core clenching.
But also, your posture can create emotional responses, sending physical signals influencing your subconscious mood.
Your posture may be able to trigger pathways in your brain related to different emotions. In one 2016 study, students were prompted to recall positive and negative memories when they were slouching and sitting up straight. 86% of students found it easier to think about negative memories when they were slouched over.
If you’ve heard of “power poses,” that’s a related concept. Power poses are potentially mood-boosting postures that include puffing out your chest, putting your hands on your waist, and speaking confidently.
Posture’s infuence on mental health also relates to your vagus nerve. This nerve runs from your brain down to your gut, and it’s responsible for calming you down. Your posture can restrict the vagus nerve’s activity, leaving you more prone to depression and anxiety symptoms.
These connections between slouching and mental health are optimistic if you’ve been struggling. After all, poor posture is a mental health factor you can easily act on.
If you find yourself slouching often, that doesn’t automatically mean there’s something wrong with you. We can experience slouching for different reasons. Maybe you’re sitting at a desk all day at school or work. Your body could be out of alignment, or you might have chronic pain. Anxiety and stress might lead you to hunch over.
Understanding where your slouching and poor posture come from can help you figure out how to work through them.
Healthline describes forward head posture as “when your head is positioned with your ears in front of the vertical midline of your body.” An adult human head weighs 10-11 pounds. All that weight leaning forward, instead of being stacked upright, causes muscle tension and excessive strain on the spine.
The term text neck, or tech neck, was coined by a chiropractor in the US who saw a trend of poor posture caused by folks looking down at their phones too often. Medical resource site Spine-Health associates neck pain, back pain, and headaches with text neck, as well as overall forward head posture.
If you find yourself in pain after being on your phone or looking down at your phone, you might be experiencing text neck. An increase in physical pain is a recipe for increased mental health struggles too.
We usually think of slouching just as leaning forward vs. back. But you can also think of sitting or walking “out of alignment” as side-to-side slouching or imbalance. Anyone may find themselves out of alignment, but it’s especially common for neurodivergent people, such as those with autism.
Favoring one side puts stress on the other side, creating unnecessary tension, and a bottom-up feedback loop contributing to anxiety, frustration, or even pain and sleep issues.
More food for thought? We might not even notice our body’s poor alignment if it happens at night. Sleep Foundation talks about different types of sleep positions that can contribute to body mis-alignment, like sleeping on your stomach or in twisted positions. The risks of poor postural alignment at night include neck pain, back pain, and postural problems during the day as well.
When we feel we are “bad,” unworthy, unlovable, or somehow shameful, that comes out in our posture. If you find yourself regularly slumping forward, head down, or just generally making yourself small, it could be because of unresolved, internalized trauma or shame.
Even if you aren’t sure if your posture is that bad, practicing good posture can still boost your mental health and be a positive practice in your life. While poor posture can increase negative thoughts and feelings, good posture can do the opposite.
Yoga poses like the star open your body up and can help break the habit of slouching throughout the day.
Those with text neck or a neck hump may choose to do simple daily exercises strengthening the muscles that hold the head up straight. When you train those muscles better, you may find yourself less hunched and more open to a relaxed state of mind.
If you find your posture may be related to shame, you may choose to practice interacting with safe people who can help you believe you’re a-ok just the way you are. Or, you may also attempt to influence your emotions with physical exercises. One example is practicing deep breathing with your shoulders rolled back. Yoga exercises like “ujai breathing” may feel especially helpful.
“Power poses” may be worth a shot, but the jury is still out whether they can really impact your mood.
Trying to combat tech neck? Change the setup of your work environment. Instead of looking down at a computer or phone, prop up your device on stacked books or whatever you have in your space – make sure you are at eye level with the screen. Make sure you are close enough to your desk or workspace so that you don’t need to bend forward to type, but can sit with your arms at a 90 degree angle.
Practice sitting at your desk with correct posture to get your body used to what that feels like. Roll your shoulders back and tuck your chin to your neck to practice getting your head in line with your neck.
If it feels unnatural to pull your shoulders back toward each other, a different approach might help. Think of pulling your shoulder blades down toward your butt.
Sometimes the best thing you can do for your posture is move around. Dynamic posture is the way you hold your body when in motion. In contrast, static posture is how you hold yourself when you are sitting, standing, or sleeping.
Exercises that may help improve your dynamic posture here.
Want to improve your static posture? Releasing tension can be a good place to start. Give your body time to stretch itself out, get blood flowing, and shake itself out of poor postural habits.
We can set ourselves up to have better body alignment by picking better sleeping positions. UCLA Ergonomics suggests sleeping on your back with a pillow under the head and knees to allow your spine to lengthen out and lay down flat. If you’re a side sleeper, try putting a pillow between your knees for the best spine alignment, and make sure you have enough neck pillow support to keep your ear away from your shoulder.
If you’re still waking up feeling like your shoulders are hunched over and your posture is slumped, consider getting a firmer mattress, or even flipping your mattress over to get use out of the other side (which may be more firm).
The biggest roadblock to better posture is the overwhelm we may feel as we seek to make a change. Talking through that overwhelm may make it easier to take action and improve your slouching. That’s one way you can use Supportiv’s instant, anonymous peer support chats.
We’re here 24/7 to help talk through the emotional roadblocks you face, and help you figure out your best next steps.