Did you know that how we position ourselves can affect what hormones are released in our bodies?
Try holding something between your teeth when feeling gloomy or uneasy about something. The ‘smile’ response will trigger feel-good hormones, whether there is a reason for smiling or not. Hormones are crucial to our continuing health, but they are not independent of our will, and we can control the amount we allow into our systems. Here’s why:
Social scientist Amy Cuddy’s TEDx talk explains how her team discovered that when assuming an alpha role in a situation or organisation an individual’s testosterone goes up significantly within days and their cortisol – the stress hormone – drops. To demonstrate this they had volunteers adopt high power poses (hands on hips, legs spread for instance) and low power poses (hunched, rubbing neck, hands between knees) for two minutes, after which they were asked to spit into a vial. Their saliva samples showed that the ‘low power poses’ caused a 10% decrease in testosterone and a 15% increase in cortisol. The ‘high power poses’ led to a 20% increase in testosterone and a 25% decrease in cortisol. Nature has ensured that those in control are both mentally strong and laid back at the same time.
Cortisol is one of the most damaging hormones to our DNA. Learning to adopt physical poses and facial expressions which counteract feelings of victimhood and suffering is a powerful way to combat the kind of disease and tissue damage seen in ageing. Ageing is not something that just happens with the passing of the years; it is the result of prolonged exposure to environmental stress which causes DNA damage and tissue inflammation.
Body language is part of what is known as non-verbal communication. Non-verbals govern how we feel about ourselves. Our bodies change our minds therefore, as illustrated in the above experiment, but by pro-actively adopting powerful poses, our minds can decide to change our bodies.
Our body language changes as we age. The question is to what degree are these changes inevitable, brought about by muscle loss and skeletal degradation? Exercise increases bone density at any age and nutrition can do wonders in avoiding these problems, but our attitude to our body is also crucial. Take posture – are we walking like an old person because we really can’t walk any other way, or could we stand straighter, walk more briskly? How often do we shuffle? Do we examine the pavement or engage with the outside world? When we shake someone’s hand, is it the firm grip of a confident person, or the limp, weak handshake of someone who has given up?
Adopting the physical gait and posture of a person in their prime triggers an immediate response in the body (see Ellen Langer’s Counterclockwise experiment). Just acting as if we were young has actual effects on our physical capacities – ranging from strength, memory, mood and even leading to better eyesight and hearing. We can ‘trick’ the body into being at its best in exactly the same way that the social cues that come with turning 60, 70 and beyond ‘trick’ us into believing we ‘just can’t do that anymore’. Our daily speech should ban forever all talk along the lines of “I’m doing this course before I go completely gaga”, “I’ll go on that trip before I become totally decrepit” and “I notice I’m much more tired these days”. Fatigue in particular is quoted as being part of the nocebo effect : patients in trials receiving a sugar pill who were told the new drug caused fatigue reported feeling so exhausted on some days they could not get out of bed.
Science is slowly confirming the Latin aphorism Mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body), which is just about the best medical news of the 21st century. Let’s not lose the spring in our step. Believing in our continuing vitality is an excellent tool for avoiding the physical deterioration that so often accompanies later life. So let’s fake it till we make it.