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Your posture, your mood: how the two interact: you can use physical actions, facial expressions, and stances to improve your emotional state.

Most of us think of the brain as the master controller that manipulates body movement to express how we feel, but a number of studies suggest that the reverse may also be true. Our facial expressions, body posture, and movements also appear to influence our thoughts and emotions, a phenomenon known as embodiment.

"A growing body of research suggests that the brain/body interaction is a bi-directional relationship in which messages run not only down from the brain to the body, but also from the sensory neurons up the spinal cord to the brain," says Gregory Fricchione, MD, Director of the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at MGH. "For example, the brain might associate an erect, chin-up, expansive posture of the body with strength and power, and be more inclined to reflect feelings of confidence and optimism when a person assumes this posture."


In one study published in the March 2015 issue of the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, scientists asked volunteers to memorize a list of positive and negative words, then asked them to walk on a treadmill in either a depressed style (with shoulders slumped and limited arm movements) or a happier style (back straight, arms swinging). Subsequent word recall tests revealed that participants who walked in a depressed manner were more likely to recall negative words than those who walked in a more positive way. The findings are in line with earlier research indicating that depressed individuals are more likely to remember negative events than positive events, and suggest that walking style may affect vulnerability to depression.

"This is a bottom-up theory of emotion," says Dr. Fricchione. "It suggests that the body may be the driving force behind mood. One could make the argument that it was the brain that first instructed the body to move in a depressed way, but most likely both phenomena are interrelated aspects of the neurochemical milieu of the brain. They are so intimately connected that they work closely as a unit: The brain and the body are one."


The idea that a feedback loop exists between brain and body suggests it may be possible to consciously affect your emotional state through your physical actions, and studies have supported this theory. Some examples:

* Keep your chin up: Looking up, shoulders back, is associated with more positive mood and increased feelings of confidence, studies show.

* Smile: The brain appears to associate the use of facial muscles involved in smiling with feelings of joy and well-being, so a fake smile--or even holding a pencil between the lips--has been found to engender feelings of happiness and lower levels of stress in research subjects. A real smile is even better.

* Take slow, deep breaths: A large body of research suggests that deep, relaxed breathing can ease anxiety and lower levels of stress hormones.

* Assume a confident posture: Just two minutes spent standing in a "power pose" with legs spread and hands on hips is linked to increased levels of testosterone (a hormone connected to dominance) and lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), and is linked to feelings of strength, confidence, and reduced stress.

* Move with energy: A 2012 study compared the self-rated energy levels of volunteers after they walked, slouched and round-shouldered, down a hall-way and again after they skipped down the same hallway. Results revealed that skipping raised subjective energy levels, while slouching lowered them.

* Dance: Numerous studies have shown that moving to your favorite music is a great way to lower stress, improve focus, and boost mood.

* Hug yourself: Believe it or not, wrapping your arms around your shoulders or arms and giving yourself a hug can increase levels of the love chemical oxytocin, linked in studies with a range of positive emotions.

"Changing your posture or expression in a positive way could be helpful," says Dr. Fricchione, author of the acclaimed book Compassion and Healing in Medicine and Society, which explores the importance of a heartfelt physician/patient connection in medicine. "However, using these techniques constantly in an effort to eliminate negative feelings would probably not be helpful. Human beings are designed to respond to circumstances: As long as the environment varies, so do we." MMM


In addition to changing your gait, posture or facial expression, the following strategies may help you maintain a positive mood:

* Lead a healthy lifestyle to eliminate factors such as fatigue, stress, or inadequate nutrition that might lead to irritability, discouragement and other negative feelings.

* Be aware of signs that you may be feeling stress, anxiety, depression or other negative moods, and try to replace factors that trigger these feelings with more positive alternatives.

* Consider regularly engaging in relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga, which incorporate deep breathing and physical relaxation to lower levels of stress, anxiety, hostility, depression, and fatigue and improve feelings of calm, well-being, and energy.
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Publication:Mind, Mood & Memory
Date:Sep 1, 2015
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