Quantum Science: Use Your Body to Shape Your Feelings
For Kindred Spirit issue 175 (May/June, 2021), Dr David R Hamilton explains how to make the most of the mind-body connection
By Dr David R Hamilton
The mind-body connection is quite well known by now. For example, you might blush when you feel shy, or salivate when you imagine biting into a lemon. Thinking of someone who you feel a conflict with tends to produce stress hormones and increases blood pressure, while thinking fondly of someone produces kindness hormones and tends to reduce blood pressure.
Even more obviously, you smile and relax your muscles when you feel happy and frown and tense when you feel stressed. You don’t remember to smile, relax, frown or tense. These are reflex-type reactions: physical consequences of your mental and emotional states.
You can imagine it in the following way. When you feel happy, it’s like there’s a puppet master in the brain who pulls upwards on your smile muscles. When you feel stressed, the puppet master pulls on the muscle between your eyes instead, the frowning muscle known as the corrugator supercilli.
These are examples where a mental or emotional state produces a physical effect. But it goes the other way too. The way we hold and move our bodies impacts our mental and emotional states.
Speaking to the brain
In a sense, your brain ‘hears’ the voice of what your body is saying. One of the quickest ways to feel stressed is to move the body in a fast, jerky way with a shallow breath. The brain ‘hears’ the message that you feel stressed and dutifully produces a mental and emotional state of that feeling.
One of the quickest ways to relax, on the other hand, is to move your body in a slow and relaxed way and to breathe at a steady, deep and comfortable pace. Your brain ‘hears’ that you feel relaxed and produces a more relaxed state.
We can use the body in all sorts of ways to help create the states we want. We actually do this all the time, albeit mostly unconsciously. Standing with slumped shoulders can make a person feel low in confidence, for example, while standing up straight can cause them to feel more confident and even to have more energy.
This was demonstrated in some work by Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard University. She invited some volunteers to stand in a high power posture, similar to the way Wonder Woman or Superman might stand: upright, head up, eyes looking straight ahead. Others were invited to stand in what’s called a low power posture: slumped shoulders, head and eyes down.
Cuddy timed them standing in either posture for two minutes and sampled a few chemical levels from their saliva. It turned out that standing in the high power posture actually elevated levels of hormones associated with confidence and self esteem, while reducing stress hormone levels at the same time. Standing in the low power posture did the opposite, increasing stress hormone levels and reducing those hormones associated with confidence and self esteem.
Cuddy concluded that not only do our bodies reflect how we feel, we can use our bodies to create how we want to feel.
In similar research done in New Zealand, researchers asked several workers in an office to sit with their backs straight for 20 minutes and compared them against a similar number of people who sat slouched throughout the same time. Afterwards, they were then given a stressful task in which they all had to present to a panel why they were the best candidate for a fictitious job.
The people who had been sitting upright were found to give better presentations than those who had been sitting slumped. They also had more energy, felt themselves to be in more positive moods, and were found to actually use more positive language when they spoke.
Shaping your experience with your body
The mind-body connection is bi-directional. This means that it goes two ways: from the mind to the body and from the body to the mind.
Think of it the next time you stand in line in a coffee shop, or while you sit at a meeting. It’s quite common that many of us slump our shoulders while we scroll on our phones without realising that we may be causing ourselves to feel negative emotions. Hold your phone in such a way that you have your back straight and your shoulders relaxed.
If you ever find yourself lacking confidence in any situation or around particular people, notice how you are sitting or standing and notice how you are breathing. Is it tight and shallow, or deep and relaxed?
Adjust your body. Straighten your back, relax your shoulders. Hold your head up and look straight ahead. Breathe as if you’re telling your brain, ‘I feel relaxed and confident’. That’s what your brain will hear, and you will find that you will soon move towards feeling what your body is saying.
No matter what the situation, you can use your body to create how you want to feel.
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This feature was originally published in Kindred Spirit issue 175 (May/June 2021) . Click here to subscribe and have each new issue of Kindred Spirit delivered directly to your door. Alternatively, you can purchase individual magazines directly from our website.