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About Mental Health

Sit up straight, a command never far from the lips of mothers just a couple of generations ago, is not something you hear very often today. But depression is something we hear a lot about. Depression affects an extraordinary number of people — roughly nine percent of people in the UK suffer from combined anxiety and depression disorder [1], 7.7 percent in Ireland [2] and in the United States 6.9 percent of the population suffer major depression [3].

Depression and posture are not commonly associated in most people’s minds, but scientists from the San Francisco State University have found a link between the two. Their findings could significantly help people manage their depression at no cost and with no side effects.

fitness, sport, training, gym, technology and lifestyle concept – smiling teenage girl with smartphone and earphones meditating in gym

The most common treatments for depression are drugs and cognitive therapy. An ever-increasing range of antidepressants aim to affect the chemical makeup of the brain by inhibiting the production of some chemicals and promoting the release of others.

Depression is closely linked to negative self-talk, and catastrophizing is so ingrained as to be habitual. Self-talk has a marked effect on mood. Cognitive therapy aims to restructure the way the depressed person thinks by changing or reframing their inner dialogue. Both treatments focus on the brain — drugs to change the chemical mix in the brain, cognitive therapy to change the pattern of thoughts passing through that brain. Undeniably, both treatments can be effective, often life-saving, but what has been left out of the equation is the rest of the human body.

Body-based psychotherapy has demonstrated that the body and brain form a holistic unit. The brain, through the nervous system, affects every aspect of the body, but the connection is not just one-way. The body can and does influence the structure of the brain as well as the content of the mind. Several studies have shown that simple, regular exercise is more effective in the treatment of depression than drug therapy [4], yet movement and posture are frequently overlooked when developing treatment plans for depression.

In 1992, a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrated a progressive increase in the rate of depression worldwide over the previous 50 years. [4] At the same time, the straight back and upright posture has gone rapidly out of fashion. Beginning in the 1920’s slouching with hips thrust forward replaced the erect posture as a mark of sophistication and confident ease. [5]

Furniture designers quickly followed this trend. As someone with chronic lower back problems, I know from the pain I experience that the design of almost every chair, couch, seat and bench encourages slouching. The advent of handheld computers and smartphones has exacerbated this trend toward poor posture. Several studies have shown clear links between poor posture and both negative thinking and low energy — both features of depression.

A 2004 study examined the effects of upright and slumped posture on the ability of college student s to recall both positive and negative thoughts. [6] Participants were asked to generate both positive and negative thoughts in upright and slouched positions. The results show that it is significantly easier to generate positive thoughts when body posture is upright. At a rate of two to one, participants also reported that negative thoughts were easier to generate in the slumped position than when sitting upright. “When sitting upright and looking upwards, it was difficult and for many almost impossible to recall hopeless, helpless, powerless, and negative memories and easier to recall empowering, positive memories,” [7] the authors, Erik Peper and I-Mei Lin, reported.

Depression also is marked by decreased energy levels – it’s often difficult for people suffering from depression to drag themselves through the day partly because they have so little energy. In a 2012 study, [8] researchers asked participants to rate their perceived energy level when walking in a slouched manner and when performing opposite-arm skipping (raising the right arm at the same time as the left leg and vice versa), an activity that also involves looking up.

Slouch walking significantly decreased energy levels for people with a history of depression and opposite arm skipping while looking up “rapidly and significantly” increase the energy levels of all participants compared to slouch walking. In addition, Professor Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School has demonstrated that body posture, in this case taking a confident, powerful standing or sitting position for a mere two minutes, increases testosterone and reduces cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the body. [9]

In the depths of depression, it can be difficult to straighten the spine and pull the shoulders back, but these studies show clearly that sitting and standing up straight has a significant effect on the way we feel. Retraining posture takes awareness and practice over time, but it can be done. It’s helpful to tape reminders in strategic places – on the computer, the mirror, over the sink, as a bookmark, on our Kindle if we have one. With persistence, posture changes.

It’s not a complete cure for depression, but posture and movement are important tools to add to the range of options available for managing depression, elevating mood and increasing energy levels. Posture change is free and the only side effect is that it makes for a healthy, supple spine.


[1] Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England, 2007, Results of a Household Survey, NHS, The Information Center for Health and Social Care,

[2] Depression: The Symptoms, The Statistics, The Help. Irish Independent, July 26, 2004.

[3] Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 2012, National Institute of Mental Health.

[4] Weissman, Myrna et. al. (1992). Changing Rate of Major Depression: Cross National Comparisons. Journal of the American Medical Association, December 1992, Vol. 268, No. 21.

[5] Gokhale, Esther (2008). 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. Pendo Press, p. 15.

[6] Wilson, V., Peper, E. (2004, September). The Effects of Upright and Slumped Postures on the Recall of Positive and Negative Thoughts. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Vol. 29, No. 3.

[7] Peper, E., Lin, I-M. (2012). Increase or Decrease Depression: How Body Postures Influence Your Energy Level. Biofeedback, Vol. 40, Issue 3, pp. 125-130.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cuddy, Amy. Your Body Shapes Who You Are.

This article was originally published in Positive Health Issue 220 Feb 2015.

.  About Catherine Dowling

Catherine Dowling is the author of Radical Awareness: Five Practices for a Fully Engaged Life, a handbook for putting the wisdom of spiritual awareness into practice with a range of day-to-day issues, and Rebirthing and Breathwork: A Powerful Technique for Personal Transformation. She practiced as a breathwork psychotherapist for almost twenty years in Ireland and is a former president of the International Breathwork Foundation. Catherine now lives in New Mexico.