Anxiety can be triggered by anything. For instance: you’re sitting in a meeting and your boss unexpectedly calls on you, or it’s midnight on April 14, and you’re sitting down to do your taxes; you see on caller ID that it’s your ex calling and you know this is going to be a difficult conversation; at the interview for your dream job, the interviewer mentions the necessity for pre-employment testing.
Sooner or later every one of us is going to be asked to do something that makes our heart pound, our hands sweat, and stops us dead in our tracks. I call this kind of paralyzing fear “action anxiety.”
“Action anxiety” shows up any time you’re confronted with something you’re afraid to do. It can freeze you into inaction, silence, or convince you to quit when you're almost done. Sound familiar?
But what if there was something quick and easy you could do to help you deal with “action anxiety,” no matter when or how it shows up?
Well there is.
Sit or stand up straight.
It’s common knowledge that when you sit up straight you feel better physically. There’s less stress on your back, your shoulders and your neck. You can breathe more deeply, digest your food more easily. (Not to mention making you look five to ten pounds thinner).
And research now tells us that upright posture also helps you feel more confident, more powerful, safer, calmer and can actually help you think better.
The Fear Response
Let’s begin by looking at what happens when we’re faced with something that worries or scares us. A study done in 2018 by Erik Peper, a professor at San Francisco State University, suggests that when we’re feeling threatened, our natural reaction to fear is to hunch our shoulders down and curl into a defensive crouch.
While this posture protects us from any physical threat or danger, it does the opposite when we’re confronted with emotional or social threats -- like a difficult conversation with your teenager, or being asked to explain why you’re late in handing in your monthly report, again.
Not only does this hunched posture not protect you from the threat, research shows it can actually make your negative thoughts, and the symptoms of your anxiety worse. A 2017 article in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found fewer negative thoughts and lower anxiety in participants with erect posture.
A 2012 study found that just two or three minutes of slouched walking increased depression and negativity. while two minutes of skipping caused an increase in energy and positive thinking.
Want some proof of your own? Go ahead, hunch over. Let your spine round and your head hang low. Notice how you feel both physically and emotionally.
Now, sit up straight. Square your shoulders and lift your spine. Make sure your ear lobes are over your shoulders. Notice the difference in how your feel.
Good Posture Changes How You Think
If you’re trying to fill out forms for the DMV or take a test, the last thing you’re thinking about is your posture. But if you can remember to sit up straight and take a few deep breaths, chances are you’re going to feel more focused and will do a better job in filling in those blanks.
In a study done in 2018 by researchers at San Francisco State University, 125 college students were tested to see how well they could do simple math problems, while they were hunched over. They were then tested while sitting up straight. 56% of those students reported that it was easier to do the math while sitting upright. They determined that an upright posture gives better access to positive, empowering thoughts and memories. So, when you sit up straight, you’re able to think more clearly, no matter how difficult the task at hand.
It Changes How You Feel About Yourself
Your doctor is over an hour late for your appointment. You’ve been sitting in the examination room in a paper gown, fuming. The mechanic says you need a two thousand dollar repair and you suspect he’s trying to over-charge you, but you’re not sure. In both instances, you know you need to say something, but you’re afraid to speak up.
Sitting up straight even for a couple of minutes can help you focus on your strengths, restore your self-confidence and help you speak up for yourself, even in challenging circumstances.
In a study done by Pablo Brinol for the European Journal of Social Psychology, 127 students from Ohio State University were asked to list their best and worst qualities while sitting erect, and again, while in a slumped posture. Participants sitting upright tended to see themselves in a more favorable light, while those who were hunched were less able to list their strengths.
Another study found that the participants who sat upright reported better self-esteem, a better mood and less fear than those who were slouching.
Finally, in her now famous Ted Talk, Amy Cuddy shares an experiment that studied people asked to go through a simulated job interview. Before the interviews, some participants assumed a high power posture, for two minutes while others were asked to take a low power pose for the same two minutes Those who assumed a confident position were evaluated much more favorably, and were more likely to be hired by the judges than their slouching peers.
So there you have it. Any time your boss calls you into her office, when you realize you’ve forgotten your notes for the presentation or you’re faced with any kind of “action anxiety,” just lift your shoulders, straighten your back, breathe, and take action.
As Helen Keller said “Never bend your head. Always hold it high. Look the world straight in the eye.”
1. Peper,Erik, Mason, Lauren, Harvey, Richard, Lin, I-Mel. (2018). Do Better in Math: How Your Body Posture May Change Stereotype Threat Response. NeuroRegulation, 5(2):67-74.
2. Wilkes, Carissa, Kydd, Rob. Sagar, Mark, Broadbent, Elizabeth.(March 2017) Upright Posture Improves Affect and Fatigue in People with Depressive Symptoms. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. Vol. 54. Pgs.143-149
Retrieved From: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005791616301719.
3. Peper, Erik, Lin, I-Mel. Increase or Decrease Depression: How Body
Postures Influence Your Energy Level. (2012) Biofeedback. Vol 40. No3, pps 125-130.
Retrieved From: [https://www.aapb-biofeedback.com/doi/abs/10.5298/1081-5937-40.3.01.
4. Peper, Erik, Mason, Lauren, Harvey, Richard, Lin, I-Mel. (2018). Do Better in Math: How Your Body Posture May Change Stereotype Threat Response. NeuroRegulation, 5(2):67-74.
5. Brinal, Pablo, Wagner, Benjamin, C., Petty, Richard, E. (October 2009) Body Posture Effects on Self – Evaluation: A Self Validation Approach. European Journal of Social Psychology.39(6) 1053-1064.
6. Nair, Shwetha, Sagan, Mark, Sollers III, John, Consedine, Nathan, Broadbent, Elizabeth. (2015) Do Slumped and Upright Postures Affect Stress Responses: A Randomized Trial. Health Psychology Vol 35(6). pps 632-641.
Retrieved From: https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fhea0000146
7. Cuddy, Amy. Ted Talk. October 1, 2012.
Retrieved From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ks-_Mh1QhMc