How Changing Your Body Language Can Change Your Mind

Uncategorized Mar 10, 2018


By Shannon Thompson 

“Our bodies change our minds, and our minds change our behavior, and our behavior changes our outcomes.”

~ Amy Cuddy

I’m curious, how are you positioned right now? Are you leaning forward, hand at your chin, the other arm folded in front of your computer? Are you reclining, with a tablet perhaps? Or, are you scrolling down your phone with part of your attention on a clock, or a closed door, or an approaching bus?

If I were watching any of these scenarios I would make differing judgments as to how interested you are in this article. If you’re leaning forward, I would assume you’re fascinated, and perhaps hoping to learn something useful. If you’re reclining, I’d guess you’re reading for leisure. If you’re scrolling on your phone, I’d presume you’re killing time until something more important to you comes along. I would glean all of this information without you saying a word—by reading your body language alone.

Whether we recognize it or not, most of us are as fluent in body language as we are in verbal language, and perhaps even more sensitive to it. Humans are rapid and perceptive at interpreting the body language of others—and using body language skillfully can impact communication with others for the better.

But, does your own body language affect you?  Yes, absolutely.  The way you use your body has a profound impact emotions, your empathy, your confidence, and your sense of relaxation.  It’s called “the “somatopsychic response.” You may have heard of the “psychosomatic response” before—which is the mind’s ability to affect the body.  The somatopsychic response is the reverse of that; it’s the body’s ability to affect the mind—and it’s every bit as powerful as the psychosomatic response.  In this blog, you will learn how to use the somatopsychic response in your journey as a high performer.

Simply smiling can make you happy

Researchers Tara Kraft and Sarah Pressman devised a clever study to explore the impact of smiling on people’s behavior and physiology. Participants in the study were asked to place chopsticks in their mouths, which forced smiles of various sizes. Depending on the chopstick structure, and the instructions given to them by the researchers, subjects adopted neutral expressions, half smiles, or wide grins. Half of the participants in the study were told to smile, while the other half were left to allow the chop sticks shape their mouths.

Following the smile exercise, Kraft and Pressman asked the study participants to carry out some stressful tasks. Those who had previously been asked to smile were found to have lower stress when performing the tasks than those who had not smiled. Also, those whose expressions had been forced into the shape of a smile by the chopsticks reported lower stress when carrying out the tasks than those with neutral expressions. The findings of this study show us that smiling can positively impact emotion, whether or not that smile is a genuine expression of happiness. So, the next time you’re feeling stressed, or about to face a significant challenge, try smiling. Doing so might ease your tension whether the smile arises from true happiness, or if it is simply a forced turning upward of the corners of your mouth.

Your posture impacts your emotions

Harvard psychologist, Amy Cuddy and colleague, Dana Carvey have extensively studied how posture effects emotions (Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on the subject is one of the most viewed of all time). These researchers conducted an experiment where participants were asked to maintain a “high-power pose” or a “low-power pose” for two minutes. High-power poses are best described as expansive and open. They include standing tall, with your head high, and your shoulders back. Low-power poses appear just the opposite; a person becomes small, often crossing the legs or arms, looking down, and rounding the shoulders.

Participants in Cuddy and Carvey’s study were asked to assume a high-power pose or a low-power pose for two minutes, and then take part in a job interview. The interviewers were trained to give zero non-verbal feedback while questioning the participants (a highly uncomfortable manner of interaction for anyone). Each participant’s interview was recorded, and each interview was evaluated by raters who were blind to the hypothesis of the study. Finally, each participant was asked to submit a saliva sample, which would be analyzed for cortisol (stress hormone) and testosterone (dominance hormone) levels. These levels would indicate how stressed (more cortisol is related to more stress) or confident (more testosterone is related to more confidence) a person had been during his or her interview.

Upon the conclusion of the study, Cuddy and Carvey found that those who assumed the high-power poses prior to the job interview experienced a twenty percent increase in testosterone levels, and a twenty-five percent decrease in cortisol levels. Conversely, those who assumed the low-power poses exhibited a ten percent decrease in testosterone, and a fifteen percent increase in cortisol. Additionally, those who had assumed the high-power poses were rated as more passionate, enthusiastic, authentic, and captivating than those who had assumed the low-power poses by judges who were blind to condition. The judges also indicated that they’d be more likely to hire the high-power pose individuals than the low-power pose individuals. In summary, changing your posture to become taller and more open can help you feel more confident and less stressed. High-power poses can also improve the impression others have of you, and help you to be more successful in evaluative situations.

Relax your body, relax your mind

The final body language tool I will share here is called progressive relaxation. This is a body-to-mind relaxation technique developed by Dr. Edmund Jacobsen. The rationale behind progressive relaxation is based on the fact that sometimes a person doesn’t notice that her body has become tense. Progressive relaxation is a technique frequently employed to help a person relax in numerous contexts, including when trying to fall asleep.  I often use this strategy with the athletes that I work with because a tense body usually inhibits performance.

One terrific benefit of progressive relaxation is that its effects increase with time. The more you practice, more effective progressive relaxation will become, and the faster you will become relaxed when you begin it. At first it might take ten minutes of progressive relaxation to become relaxed. For those well practiced in this strategy, one round of tensing and releasing one muscle group can prompt the entire body to relax.

Progressive relaxation is extremely simple to try. It involves tensing and relaxing major muscle groups systematically from head to toe. I suggest beginning with your face; scrunch up your face tightly. The tension should be highly uncomfortable. Hold this for five seconds. Then, relax your face as fully and as deeply as you can. Notice the difference between tension and relaxation. Work from head to toe in this way: face first, followed by the shoulders, followed by the arms, the core, the thighs, and then the lower legs. Here is a guided meditation that can talk you through this process: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DalxIqYuKYk

On authenticity

When I share somatopsychic strategies with my clients, they occasionally complain that they feel “fake.”  Each of us has a strong desire to represent ourselves authentically, so it’s understandable to resist acting in a way that feels out of line with how we feel.  Amy Cuddy addresses this concern well. She explains that when we employ the strategies described above, we are simply priming our mind with positive emotions. These emotions do not force us into being someone we are not.  They simply energize us to be more of who we truly are. Negative emotion, self-consciousness, and tension impede our access to our true selves. By utilizing the strategies above you free yourself to be who you truly are—your authentic, best self.  

About the Author 

Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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