If winter is getting you down, consider putting a spring in your step—literally—to feel more energetic and happier.
It’s not hard to recognize people who are sad or depressed from the way they carry themselves: slumped shoulders, lowered gaze, downturned mouth, and shuffling gait. Happy people, in contrast, stand up straighter, make eye contact, smile, swing their arms, and bounce along at a brisk pace.
Short days and post-holiday doldrums can take their emotional toll; temperatures in the single digits may worsen the seasonal blues by limiting our exposure to sunlight and causing us, when we do brave the elements and venture outside, to bow our heads, hunker down against the cold, and pull our arms in tightly against our chests.
Posture, it turns out, can affect mood. The results of some recent research point to a connection between how we walk and how we feel.
In one study, undergraduates (who, due to their ready availability and incentives to participate, are the most commonly tested subjects in psychology experiments) were told to attempt to move a gauge as they walked on a treadmill. For one group, the gauge moved when they bounced along at a fast, “happy” clip; for the other, the gauge responded to a slowed, “depressed” pace.”
After being given a list of 40 words—half negative, such as “ugly” and half positive, such as “happy”—the subjects in the depressed group recalled more of the negative words. Another study by the same research team, which used people actually suffering from depression rather than randomly selected undergraduates, produced similar results when half the participants were told to slump. Subjects instructed to sit upright recalled fewer negative words.
Although more research with larger samples (each of the above studies tested fewer than 40 subjects) would be required to draw any broad conclusions, the results make intuitive sense. They also lend support to the framework underlying cognitive-behavioral therapy: making even small changes in behavior can help alter moods.
If walking isn’t an option–say you’re sitting at your desk and feeling in a funk with a deadline looming–try smiling. The act of putting on a happy face can activate neural pathways to boost serotonin and dopamine, two of the neurotransmitters targeted by most antidepressant medications.
To be clear, none of these microphysical adjustments will cure a serious case of depression. If you suffer from more severe, intractable mood problems, please seek professional intervention. But for the garden variety blahs so common this time of year, why not try walking happy? It just might help.
When people come to me for help with anxiety, I explain to them why relaxation won’t be part of the treatment plan. The typical response is often less than enthusiastic: “I don’t like feeling this way. Aren’t there techniques you can teach me so I can feel better?”
It’s understandable why someone with anxiety would want to alleviate the symptoms, which can be extremely uncomfortable–debilitating, even. But when avoidance is used to cope with the distressing feelings, the solution becomes the problem.
Avoidance is a natural response to a threatening situation, even if the threat is only a figment of a hyper-vigilant imagination. So if you’re given to worry or panic, you’re likely to steer clear of the places or events that set you off. Maybe you’ve stopped riding the Metro or declined career-advancing opportunities requiring public speaking or travel. Maybe you’ve stopped meeting friends for happy hour, taking vacations, or exercising (because you don’t want to risk elevating your heart rate). Maybe you’ve even put major life events–changing jobs, committing to a serious relationship, getting married, starting a family–on hold until you feel better.
You know you need to get your life back. But how?
The answer doesn’t involve a technique like relaxation. It requires a seismic mental shift: instead of moving away from anxiety, seek it out.
Scary, I know. And hard to execute, especially when you’ve gotten accustomed to organizing your actions around avoidance. But reclaiming all the activities you’ve relinquished in order not to rock the boat can be exhilarating.
I’m not suggesting you go full-tilt at first like the hapless character depicted in this classic Far Side cartoon, using “Professor Gallagher’s controversial technique” to overcome his fear of heights, snakes, and the dark by hanging from a high window in an enclosed chamber crawling with vipers. No need for total immersion (or “flooding,” as it’s called in behavior-therapy parlance). A gentler approach will work just as well–better, even–as long as you allow yourself to feel some discomfort.
If it’s too hard for you to execute such a plan on your own, consider enlisting the help of a cognitive-behavior therapist to help you bolster your resolve.
You have nothing to lose but your fear.
If you’re a worrier, you’ve probably heard more times than you can count, “You need to relax.” And you’ve probably given yourself a mental smack on the forehead and thought, “Duh.”
Relaxation exercises in which you alternately tense and relax each muscle group in the body or breathe from the diaphragm to create a calming response used to be standard components of my clinical repertoire. But these days I almost never recommend them except to manage chronic pain (which is aggravated by muscle tension) or, on rare occasions, hyperventilation (which can be controlled with belly breathing).
Although using relaxation to counteract anxiety and stress may seem intuitively to make sense, it almost always backfires. You can’t force yourself to relax, no matter how hard you try. In fact, trying to relax makes most people—especially those prone to tension—more stressed when they can’t achieve the mental calmness they’re seeking. Not only is it hard to summon relaxation on demand; it’s also a particular challenge for tightly wound people to let go because the sensations of relaxation can feel alien and even unpleasant to someone who values feeling in control.
And there’s another reason I don’t teach relaxation. Learning to tolerate negative emotions like anxiety is much more beneficial in the long run than trying to eliminate them.
So the next time some well-meaning friend or family member advises you to relax, you can respond with an enigmatic smile and say, “Actually, I’m trying to get more anxious.”
In my next post, I’ll tell you how.
This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.