How Posture Affects Mental Health

How Posture Affects Mental Health

By Ryan Jones, NASM, PTAGlobal, Spartan SGX, ISSA, PES, ELDOA

Do trivial tasks feel unbelievably daunting?  Do you ever get that feeling of impending doom? Or maybe you experience not being able to catch your breath, sit and/or relax? Perhaps you have panic attacks?  If you’ve ever experienced any of these thoughts or symptoms, you know this is no joke, and you aren’t alone. Anxiety and depression are extremely complex and each person’s experience is individual; however, are you aware that posture can be a major contributing factor to how you feel?

The Numbers:

Mental health has become a huge area of focus over the last decades, yet individuals reporting some sort of mental health “illness” continues to rise. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide since 2020, while the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) shows that roughly 19% of Americans reported an anxiety disorder over the past year (likely much higher). Commonly, both anxiety and depression are intertwined together, forming a vicious cycle of discontentment and lack of purpose. 

The Cause:

For decades this was marketed as a “chemical imbalance,” rooted in a person's genetic predisposition. As it turns out that’s not the case. Molecular Psychiatry conducted a large systematic review (a gathering of a large body of evidence from the known literature on a specific topic) regarding serotonin levels and depressive disorders. The conclusion was, there’s “no support for the hypothesis that depression is caused by lowered serotonin activity or concentrations.”

So if these illnesses are not caused by a genetic imbalance in the brain, perhaps giving an individual a pill and sending them on their way is not the answer. But what is?

The Real Causes:

Apart from the oversimplified idea that a chemical imbalance contributes solely to mental health issues, there are a multitude of other factors that can impact how people experience anxiety and depression.  Lack of physical activity, lack of purpose, low quality sleep, poor nutrition, modern social/news media, and poor posture are just a few of the contributors to complex struggles with mental health. A commonality with these factors is the resulting elevated levels of cortisol, which has a big role in high anxiety.  

While keeping all of these factors in mind, we are going to focus on one unorthodox offender; poor posture.

A panic attack can be viewed as an accumulation of general stress and anxiety into one acute moment. The ultimate “fight or flight” experience that can be one of the most traumatizing ordeals for individuals. Accompanied with this attack is increased heart rate (HR), blood sugar levels, temperature, and respiratory rate. The most acutely impactful of these being increased respiratory rate, or more appropriately, the inability to catch one’s breath. This overflow of stress is largely due to chronically elevated cortisol levels (stress response hormone). When elevated over time, the nervous system is continuously put in a sympathetic state, where we are always anxious and expecting danger (impending doom). 

So how does this relate to posture?

The Posture Part:

When we are in a constant kyphotic/flexed (rounded) posture, the rib cage is compressed and the function of the diaphragm/cardiorespiratory system is compromised. This leads to improper breathing mechanics, AKA increased respiratory rate or an inability to catch one’s breath, and elevated HR. Sound familiar? Continually being in this posture can greatly contribute to chronically increased cortisol/sympathetic states (i.e. high stress/anxiety)

Once we improve posture we affect several areas of our well-being. First, when we open this pathway for calming and effective breathing we lower stress and anxiety both acutely and over time, putting our nervous system into a parasympathetic state (rest and digest). This can be an effective tool to manage mental health. Additionally, when we hold ourselves in a better posture, it's shown to increase confidence, reduce pain, and influence contentment with one’s-self.  All of these benefits directly counteract many of the symptoms of poor mental health; and, when we combine these outcomes, it can have a huge impact.


The Homework:

We could give you a list of decompressive positions, thoracic mobility, spinal stabilization, and diaphragmatic breathing drills to help address your posture, but that can be overwhelming.

Here’s one simple drill to begin the process of change:

  1. Lay on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor
  2. Tuck your chin (lengthening from the back of the neck) and tuck your anterior (front) ribs.
  3. Place one hand beneath the crest of your ribs and the other on your sternum.
  4. Through your nasal, take deep breaths with a focus on the expansion of your rib cage. Feel expansion to the sides, into the floor, and into the belly. Feel your lower hand rise and fall, while your upper hand has limited movement. 
  5. Breaths should be for a long duration (~4-10 sec in and out), for ~5-15 breaths and utilized ~1-3 times a day, or whenever you feel necessary. 

If you are unable to get to the floor (whether in a car, desk chair, or somewhere else), you can apply these principles by simply sitting up tall, gliding your head back, and focusing on this expansive breath. 
This new stimulus to your spine, allowing gravity to assist in postural alignment, and working on the ability to take a full expansive breath, can have major impacts on your anxiety and general well-being.  Make this simple drill a part of your daily practice and bring more awareness to your posture throughout the day. Once you begin to feel these benefits, start to utilize more exercises such as Eldoas (more here), mobility drills, and back/core strengthening exercises to continue the process of posture and your mental health