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.
Health, or “illness anxiety disorder,” as it has been newly termed in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, can be a highly disruptive condition. For those who suffer from it, seeking medical attention can be an almost addictive process. Sometimes getting the advice of a medical professional can bring relief. But, more often, it opens the door to unnecessary diagnostic testing, an escalating need for reassurance, over attention to benign physical symptoms, and greater anxiety in the face of uncertainty.
In a post published today on the medical website, KevinMd, I’ve outlined some important guidelines for physicians to follow when treating a patient with health anxiety. Although I usually discourage people with health anxiety from using the Internet to diagnose themselves, I’d recommend you check out my suggestions if you think you might have Illness Anxiety Disorder. (It’s a credible source, unlike many of the ones you may be reading.) And, the next time you see your primary care physician, bring along a copy. With most health matters–and, especially so with health anxiety–collaboration is the best medicine.
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.