We know that poor posture is hard on the spine, but did you know that slumping also gradually shifts the nervous system to fight or flight? As a result, slumped postures can raise anxiety levels and reduce empathy and creativity. Understanding how the nervous system and body mechanics interact is a game changer, and can help bring about easy and enjoyable shifts in our habits.
The forward-rounded fetal position is actually the position of defeat. In terms of the stress response, slumping, which is the cowering of the head and crowding of the heart, is the neurological equivalent of the freeze or hide portion of the of the “fight, flight, freeze, hide” fear response. It’s what animals do when they give up. Likewise, psychologists use terms like “collapsed" and “resigned” to describe the posturing of depressed people.
The opposite posturing, that of extending the body by arching the chest and spine backward, can reverse the fear response. Extension can actually shift us from freeze and hide to the restorative setting of “rest, digest, heal, feel,” by which we return to connectivity, creativity and optimism.Here are several simple ways you can shift quickly.
Position your pelvis slightly higher than your knees. Some chairs adjust this way but if yours doesn’t, roll a towel under your pelvis or sit on a sturdy foam wedge. Rolling slightly forward on the bones that touch the chair—your sit bones—is often where the sweet spot is: the position in which sitting and breathing take the least work.
Feel your feet on the ground. Feeling the ground and the weight of your feet on the floor—even by rubbing your toes inside your shoes—activates the circuit to the sacral plexus of nerves in the pelvis. This circuit wakes up the restorative nervous system. Visualizing roots going down into the earth helps; I’ll let the quantum physicists explain how!
Feel your belly button move toward your spine. Bringing your belly button inward “cinches the corset” of the strong abdominal muscles so they can do the work of sitting up. This also releases the hip flexors (psoas muscles) and wakes up the diaphragm, which helps us breathe and calms the organs in that area, including the kidney (renal) and the associated adrenal circuit of the stress response.
Flatten your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Stimulating the soft palate wakes up the vagal pathway of nerves that oppose the stress response. Defaulting your tongue to the roof of your mouth whenever you’re not talking or eating also ensures that you’ll breathe through your nose. This gives you the recirculated carbon dioxide your brain needs to remain calm.
Imagine a cord from the crown of your head to the sky. Somehow this visualization helps the body feel lighter and makes the work of sitting seem easier. I actually begin to feel like I’m a cobra rising from a basket.
Lastly, drinking enough water is key. Water helps keep the renal and adrenal circuits calm. Hydration keeps all the organs happy, including the skin, which is intimately connected to the nervous system—which is why touch is calming and why animals groom each other after stressful events.
I’ve heard the saying “sitting is the new smoking.” Yet sitting consciously, with just a touch of carefully wielded attention, can be incredibly healing. But don’t take my word for it—try it for yourself.
Michelle Veneziano, D.O. is an osteopathic medical doctor who lives in Forest Knolls. She has largely restored a spinal disc that was injured badly in her 20s through this sitting practice. She will lead a workshop in osteopathic self-healing on July 13 at the San Geronimo Valley Presbyterian Church. See the calendar for details.