The way we hold ourselves can influence our relationships and our communication, as well as our health. Are you getting it right?
If you’ve ever been in a confrontation with someone, you’ll know how offensive and inhibiting body language can be. Folded arms, a tense face and a body turned away can all indicate that person does not want to talk to you, or wants to say something you don’t want to hear.
But it’s not just in times of difficulty that our bodies transmit messages. Every day the way we move can pass subliminal messages to others and, through non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, gesture and touch, we can convey as much information as the spoken word. “We’ve all evolved to subconsciously ‘read’ these messages in order to better understand and gauge social situations,” says behaviour change psychologist Dr Aria Campbell-Danesh, creator of the F.I.T. method mindtraining programme (dr-aria.com). “Research suggests there are universal emotions encoded in our facial muscles. We can automatically detect basic emotions such as anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise and disgust, but variations in facial movements can also reflect the intensity and whether the emotion is simulated or spontaneous.”
Life and wellness coach Elisabetta Franzoso (elisabettafranzoso.com) suggests there are two major ways the body responds. “With tension, so shutting down or shrinking; and by releasing, opening up or expanding,” she says. “And the postures or facial expressions we assume are an outward expression of what is happening inside. When we close our arms, we shut our body, and the message we are sending is that we don’t want to be open, or we are protecting ourselves. The opposite happens when we expand our body, when our eyes enlarge and our arms go forward, we are welcoming all that life brings us.”
Even your feet can say a lot about you says podiatrist and foot expert Dr Bharti Rajput MBE (solebodysoul.com). “Research suggests our feet can actually ‘talk’ to other people, and reveal a great deal about our emotional and psychological state,” she says. “According to research by the University of Manchester, if you fancy someone your feet will automatically move away from your body, and if you do not like them, your feet will be crossed or tucked away,” she says. “Interestingly, only women signal body posture as an indication of attraction. However, if men are nervous they will increase their foot movements, and if women are nervous, they will keep their feet still.”
But there’s also evidence our body language isn’t just a mirror of our mood – it can affect our mood and our physical health, too. “If your typical body posture is hunched, this will definitely affect your spinal functioning as you age,” adds clinical psychologist Dr Tony Ortega (drtonyortega.com). “If you sustain poor posture for an extended period of time, continued small injuries to your body will eventually take their toll and cause all kinds of physical ailments.
“Body language can also make mental health issues worse or better. If you’re having a bad day, you’ll likely be walking around hunched over, with your arms crossed or head hanging low, and these will all lead to an increase in the negative feeling you’re having. I would find it very hard to be creative or courageous when I am hunched over.”A stooped posture is a physical attribute of depression and inhibit the mind’s access to positive thoughts, adds Dr Aria. “On the flip side, scientific studies have shown that an upright posture can improve mood, reduce fatigue and boost selfesteem. A groundbreaking study at Columbia and Harvard University found expansive power poses, such as sitting back with your feet on the desk and hands behind the head, increased testosterone levels by around 19 percent and decreased the stress hormone cortisol by about 25 percent for both women and men. High-power posers also reported feeling significantly more ‘powerful’ and ‘in charge.’”
Osteopath and zero balancer Avni Trivedi (avni-touch.com), who uses the therapy of touch to balance the body’s ‘energies’, suggests yoga can help people open up both physically and mentally. “There’s a lot about radiating the heart space up and outwards and this posture definitely helps you to feel lighter and more open,” she says. “With new mums especially, it’s important to open up the chest after long periods of breastfeeding, otherwise there can be a tendency to feel down because of the slumped posture. Creativity is embodied in the pelvic centre, known as the second chakra in energy anatomy. Keeping a connection to this area of the body (for example with attention, movement, breathing and touch) can help to connect with creativity.”
Listening to your body can help you unlock its language. “Practice mindfulness to become more aware of how you are holding you body, especially in important or new situations,” says Dr Ortega. “Our bodies are very smart and will give clues. We’re so quick to change a light bulb when it goes out in our structural home but don’t pay attention to the burnt out bulbs in our physical home – our body. So, begin to form a relationship with your body’s language.”
Five ways you can improve your body language and your wellbeing
“Smile! While we all know happiness leads to smiling, there’s strong research to suggest smiling makes you feel better,” says Dr Aria. “The facial changes involved in smiling may trigger the neurochemical processes that create positive emotions.”
“Look at people you admire and watch their body language,” says Dr Ortega. “Take notice of how they talk to people. Turn off the volume when they are speaking and check out their body language. What are they saying with their bodies? How would you like to say things with your body?”
“In situations where you might feel physically vulnerable, such as walking alone on a quiet street at night, feel a connection down into your feet and the ground,” says Trivedi. “This is used in martial arts to be ‘rooted like a tree’ and more stable, even when you don’t feel it. Lift the breastbone to open up the chest, and imagine the collar bones are wings that spread out and back.”
“Walk with a spring in your step,” says Dr Aria. “A study from San Francisco State University found that walking in a slouched position reduced energy level ratings, especially for those with the highest depression scores. Walking with an opposite arm and leg skip significantly increased how energetic the participants felt.”
“Imagine being in a boardroom meeting,” says psychotherapist and hypnotherapist Diana Parkinson (dianaparkinson.uk). “Take some calming breaths before entering the room, then touch and slightly move the chair you will be sitting in, taking possession of the chair. Sit upright, and if the chair has arm rests, use them, so your body is open. Do not cross your arms or legs. Even if you are nervous, hold your head high and look around – as you take your focus away from yourself you will find you feel more comfortable. The more you practise speaking in silent body language, the more natural it becomes. People will warm to your positive body language, see you as approachable, friendly and honest and so friendships and relationships improve.”
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