Don't stress!!! But if that didn't work, try this

Author: Nina Kajee

You’ve seen this before: David Attenborough narrating from a forest in Cameroon, where the cameras carefully film a troop of gorillas. Suddenly, there’s a skirmish and the silver-backed leader assumes an imposing stance to assert his dominance and re-establish the status quo. Lizards also puff themselves up when confronted with a threat, as do most dogs, cats, and birds. It’s a prehistoric nonverbal signal that conveys power and, because striking a pose like this exposes vital organs, confidence. 


By now, Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED Talk on body language is famous. The social psychologist and her colleagues established a link between cortisol and testosterone levels in humans assuming big and small poses. Smaller poses led to increased cortisol and lower testosterone levels, while the opposite occurred when subjects assumed big poses.

Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone, secreted when there is a threat. It sets off a series of complex reactions to get you ready to fight or flee the stressor. Testosterone (present in the bodies of all sexes, not just males) is linked to mood maintenance. Dr Cuddy and her colleagues proposed that testosterone secretion had the inverse effect of cortisol – in other words, more testosterone makes us less stressed. 


Fake it till you become it


After establishing that posture is an indication of the delicate balance between the levels of cortisol and testosterone in the body, Dr Cuddy and her team questioned whether the reverse was also true. Simply put: can posture be consciously manipulated to tip the testosterone/cortisol balance in a desired direction, therefore affecting how we feel? Apparently, yes. 


“So, when I tell people about this,” says Dr Cuddy in her TED talk, “that our bodies change our minds and our minds can change our behaviour, and our behaviour can change our outcomes, they say to me It feels fake.” Her solution to this is now a catch phrase: “Fake it till you become it.”


More posture science


In a study published in NeuroRegulation in 2018, participants were required to complete maths problems in two different sitting positions; (1) upright with shoulders back and (2) slouched forward. They were asked to rate the difficulty of the maths after each sitting. 


Interestingly, those who were confident in their maths abilities showed no difference in their ratings. However, those who were insecure about their maths abilities rated the upright position much higher than the slouched one. They felt much better about doing something that made them anxious, while sitting with better posture. 


How to become it


The NeuroRegulation paper supports Dr Cuddy’s findings and points to the conclusion that a position which opens up the body and spreads the limbs may lower stress levels on a chemical level. This has led to a collection of so-called Power Poses. 


The scientific community has questioned the effectiveness of the Power Pose over the years, but Dr Cuddy, who is a lecturer at Harvard, and her team have stuck to their guns on the matter in another publication from 2018. Why not try it for yourself now? Stand with your arms and legs outstretched as if in an X position for two minutes to benefit from a testosterone rush. If you’re limited to a seated position, be sure to sit upright, with shoulders back.




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