The surprising negative impact bad posture can have on your mental health

Written by Hanna Ibraheem

Poor posture doesn’t just affect your physical health,it can wreak havoc on your mind, too. Stylistexamines the more serious side of slumping. 

Are both of your feet firmly on the floor? Is your back resting against your seat?  Are your shoulders relaxed? Or on reading this are you all of a sudden shuffling your body into a more presentable posture? Thought so.

Research from the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has revealed that more people in the UK are experiencing weekly back or neck pain compared to five years ago – and our posture while at work has been highlighted as the biggest culprit. But since four in five people in the UK now have a desk job (or sofa/dining table/bed, depending on how you’re currently working from home) and 94% of adults own a smartphone (which also affects how we hold our bodies), it’s near impossible to swerve the effects your posture can have on your health. As well as damaging your physical wellbeing, studies are now showing that posture can have a knock-on effect on your mental health, too.

The way we hold ourselves is ingrained in our habits from day dot. From a young age, we spend hours sitting at desks at school. But at least playtime broke up the static sessions. Once we graduate to desk jobs and several hours of phone usage every day, we’re at real risk of misalignment.

Ameet Bhakta, postural alignment specialist at Health Through Posture, says: “Your muscles keep your posture in alignment and require a variety of work to stay functional, balanced and healthy. Our modern-day lifestyles rarely allow the diversity and frequency of movement that maintains this balance.”

Got a hunch?

You might remember your parents telling you to stop slouching whenever guests came over – and annoyingly, they were right. Standing tall doesn’t only make your physical appearance more impressive, it boosts your psychological state too. Experts note that a slumped posture is one of the first visual signs of a bad mood.

“When you think of someone who is feeling down, you can picture what kind of posture they have in that moment,” Bhakta says. This ‘closed’ posture – a curved back, tilted head and hunched shoulders – affects your mood by reducing the amount of oxygen you’re breathing in, which is vital for good health, cell renewal and feeling awake and full of energy, explains psychotherapeutic counsellor Chanelle Sowden.

“When we slump, we are most likely only breathing into our chest which is not effective,” she explains. “A deep breath requires us to take oxygen in through our nose and send it all the way down to our stomach which is harder to do with a closed posture.”

Slouching could also be the reason behind those 3pm headaches. Sowden says the lack of oxygen can result in yawning, as this is your body trying to draw in a deep breath quickly. If this is you, focus on taking deep breaths. “Put your hands on your stomach and push your stomach out as you inhale so it fills up with air, then draw your stomach in to your spine while you exhale,” instructs Sowden. “Doing this will naturally straighten your spine and open your body up.”

Bad posture may also have a social impact on us, as it closes us off to the world. A study published in the Health Psychology Journal found that participants who adopted an upright position reported higher self-esteem, more engagement and less anxiety. Those who were in a slumped posture used more negatively emotive words.

“You may seem less approachable, you will notice less of what’s going on around you and it may even lead to you becoming more introverted, overthinking or internalising your feelings and thoughts,” explains Sowden. “None of this is helpful for your mental health.” Bhakta adds: “For 10% to 20% of the clients who see me, the main reason they want to improve their posture is because they are worried about how it looks to themselves and others, and this affects their confidence and their self-esteem.”

Heads up

It’s not just your desktop that’s to blame. We now spend an average of two or three hours a day with our heads bent over reading and texting on smartphones and devices (maybe more, if you’re brave enough to check your phone’s time management analytics). A study conducted in New York found that weight on the spine dramatically increases the more our heads tilt forward.

Now consider this: an adult head weighs between 4.5kg and 5.4kg in a neutral position (ears aligned with the shoulders and shoulder blades retracted). When the head tilts forward by 15°, the weight increases to 12.2kg, and it reaches a staggering 27.2kg when the head is tilted to 60°. The extra weight puts pressure on the spine, causing back discomfort and neck pain – also known as ‘tech neck’.

If you’re one of the 22% of Brits who have experienced aching after using a smartphone or tablet, Catherine Quinn, chiropractor and president of the BCA, suggests sitting with your head up rather than resting your chin on your chest. “When using a smartphone or tablet, break your position on a regular basis,” says Quinn. “Even if it’s just shrugging your shoulders or moving your fingers; this helps to keep the respective muscles more relaxed.” Suddenly, binge-watching Netflix shows on your phone doesn’t sound like such a good idea.

Getting a desk assessment at work might rank somewhere down with fire drills in the list of enjoyable things to do, but take one when we’re back to working in the office post-lockdown. The governmental Health and Safety Executive states that these checks are mandatory, and considering that the UK has the longest working week for full-time employees in Europe (42.3 hours on average), it’s especially important.

Work woes

The perils of sitting still for hours on end are real. “While sitting by itself doesn’t lead to back pain, long periods of time without movement, especially if we’re seated in the same position, can affect our bodies,” says Quinn. “It’s also important to note that sitting is different to not exercising, as it limits movement.“For example, sitting for long periods of time can tighten your muscles, particularly your hip flexors and the muscles in your neck.” This could explain why you’re struggling to squat in the gym or why your shoulders shrug. 

To combat the sedentary hours, more and more companies started kitting out workspaces with standing desks and stability balls. Despite being all the rage, working at standing desks comes with its pros and cons. A study led by researchers at the University of Leicester found a mixed response with 52% of people who used one feeling more engagement at work after a year.

When the Stylist team tried out standing desks in June 2016, we discovered that they promoted self-assurance but also caused lower back pain, meaning they might not be a full-blown solution. “Standing desks can be a good way of promoting a healthier working posture and some of my patients have found they help to reduce back pain at work, but they do not negate the need to move regularly,” says Quinn.

As for stability balls, besides looking like fun, there isn’t much research that confirms they’re a good substitute for your chair. Spine biomechanics researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada found no evidence that they increase muscle activation compared to when participants sat on a stable stool without a backrest.

Keep it moving

If you’ve found yourself trying to force your body into a ‘perfect’ posture, you’re probably doing it wrong, according to Bhakta. “Consciously trying to sit or stand up straight never lasts – plus most people do it incorrectly, and force their body into a position which is uncomfortable or painful,” he explains. “The best thing you can do is some daily posture exercises which get your muscles doing their job properly, so they hold you in a better posture without you having to even think about it.”

Quinn recommends starting with small exercises you can do while sitting – like shoulder shrugs, shoulder circles and buttock clenches – to keep the body active throughout the working day. “A three-minute programme of simple exercises can be slotted in to your daily schedule to help prevent back pain by promoting movement, balance, strength and flexibility in the spine,” she says. So, if while reading this, your shoulders have crept back up to your ears and your neck is bent forwards, you know what to do.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Fran Hallam of The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy shares her checklist for maintaining a good posture, whether you’re working at a desk or scrolling on your phone.

  • Try to keep your smartphone, tablet or laptop screen at eye level to keep your neck in a relaxed, neutral position while you work.
  • Push your bottom to the back of your seat and rest firmly against the back of your chair for support.
  • Imagine there’s a taut string running through your body up to the ceiling. This will prevent slumping and help to keep you upright.
  • Change your position regularly and try resting your elbows on a surface to keep arms comfortable.
  • Be conscious of your shoulders and relax them as much as possible – don’t allow them to round or rise up around your ears.
  • Make sure both of your feet are flat on the floor and your knees are level with your hips.

Image credits: Getty images

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