At MSB Executive, posture work is a regular feature of our sessions. We help our clients to express confidence and authority by adjusting how they sit and stand. Our experience in the acting profession has also taught us that our physicality generates inward feedback. If you stand confidently, you’ll not only look confident, you’ll feel confident, too. (I explored this topic in an earlier blog, Matter Over Mind.)
I recently came across a fascinating 2016 paper by neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. The paper added to my understanding of this body-mind connection. The paper finds a very interesting connection between the axial muscles (the core) and the stress response.
What is The Stress Response?
The stress response is triggered by a primitive part of our brain when faced with a perceived threat. Common symptoms include a speeding heart, a clenched jaw, a churning stomach and an over-busy mind.
The primary agent of these symptoms is adrenalin, the stress hormone. The threatened brain sends an instruction down the spinal column and into the adrenal glands, which are located just above the kidneys. The glands squirt adrenalin into the blood. The hormone then whizzes around the body, switching our systems onto high alert.
Stress might be acute – a sudden ‘fight or flight’ response to a (supposedly) dangerous situation. It might also be chronic – an ongoing anxiety in response to a general feeling of insecurity.
Whichever kind of stress we are suffering (and for MSB Executive’s clients, it’s often acute pre-performance nerves), techniques for managing it are clearly valuable. We have a long list of tips, but the idea that we could add something as simple as standing up straight was very appealing!
What Controls Adrenaline?
The Pittsburgh neuroscientists wanted to get to the bottom of the adrenaline-release mechanism. So they set out to find which precise part of the brain was connected to the adrenal glands. They did so by injecting their subjects’ adrenal glands with rabies virus, which can be traced on its journey upstream through the nervous system. One or two specific areas of the brain were traditionally thought to control the adrenal glands. This was where the scientists expected to see the virus end its journey.
Instead, the journey of the rabies virus revealed an extensive network of neural pathways connected to the adrenal glands. Even more surprising was that many of these pathways ended not in the cognitive system (areas of the brain that interpret the world) but in the motor system (areas of the brain that control the body). More specifically, the adrenal glands were strongly connected to the part of the motor system responsible for the axial muscles – or core.
What Role Does Posture Play?
The scientists suggest that their findings indicate the presence of a positive feedback loop from core muscles to primary motor cortex to adrenal function. This might, they say, provide a rationale ‘for the control of stress through core exercises, such as yoga and pilates.’
We’re all for that at MSB Executive! But simply standing (or sitting) tall and confident begins with a healthy core, and the more you do it, the stronger the core becomes. And with this fresh evidence that good use of the core promotes mental wellbeing, the idea that the core is the emotional centre of the body as well as its physical centre seems less fanciful.
If you would like to find out more – but don’t have the appetite for a dense academic study – this article in The Atlantic (also from August 2016) gives a good overview. For a stress-free read, make sure you are sitting up straight!