The power of body language & motivation – Reducing stress through posture!

David McCrae | 16th August 2016

What if I told you I could boost your confidence in just two minutes? What if you could drop your stress levels in the same amount of time? How would you like to get the edge on your competition in presentations, assessments and interviews? All this can be yours when you master ‘the power pose’.

First allow me to provide some context. In evolutionary times, we lived in small social groups with a defined hierarchy. You could actually argue that little has changed since. In these social groups there was an alpha male at the top of the chain, and he got first pick of the food and females. If anyone else wanted to become alpha male, they would have to show that they were more dominant. You can see this all over the world in mating rituals. Now one of the key signs of dominance is an open body posture. The classic example of this is the peacock. It spreads its tail as wide as possible to display its dominance over other males.

Us humans, for all our claims of sophistication, do exactly the same. What does a racer do when they cross the line? They open their posture to display their dominance and triumph. In studies it has been found that when people who have been blind from birth are asked to imagine winning a race, they adopt exactly the same posture, even though they have no social model. This action is hardwired within us.

On the flip side, when an animal is confronted by a more dominant individual, they shrink as a sign of deference. They close their posture and take up less space. This is a sign of submission.

Now these postures aren’t just for show, they represent physiological changes in our body. Harvard Psychologist Amy Cuddy has conducted extensive research into body language, in particular these power poses. She has found that opening our posture and adopting a power pose raises our hormone testosterone by an average of 25%. Now testosterone isn’t just linked to muscles and ego, it is our hormone related to dominance, competitiveness and confidence. It allows both men and women to get ahead and be more successful. Power poses also cause the levels of another hormone cortisol to fall by 20%. This hormone is a pretty good biomarker of our stress levels.

Amy has conducted experiments getting participants to do mock job interviews. The participants were split into two groups. One group did a power pose for two minutes before the interview, the other group did nothing. They were then judged by people who were completely blind to which group the participants were in. These judges overwhelming judged the individuals who had done power poses before the interview as more competent candidates. So just two minutes of standing in a power pose can be the difference between you getting a job and not getting one.

And looking at the flip side of this. Shrinking into a submissive posture raises our stress hormone cortisol. Moving into this posture actually puts us into a fight-or-flight mode, because by adopting this position our body thinks it’s under attack. Now pretty much all of us do this countless times a day. Whenever we hunch over our phones or a keyboard we are raising our stress levels. People with depression are more likely to adopt a hunched standing position than people who don’t suffer from depression. Adopting what is affectionately termed the “iHunch” can make you more likely to be stressed and depressed.

So seek to open up more during the working day. Especially if your job entails lots of desk work, take breaks every hour to go hit a power pose in the toilet. Do the same before you enter a situation requiring confidence and dominance (try this when you need to get a raise off your boss!). If you have privacy, also learn to sit in what Amy calls the “CEO pose”. This is hands behind your head and legs on the desk! It might feel cocky, but it’s a great open power pose.

On the flip side of this, think about changing the way you communicate. Staying bent over your keyboard and phone will stress you out. Can you walk over to your colleague’s desk and talk to them? Can you call someone on the phone? (this allows you to hit a power pose as you talk to them) Additionally, try not to use your phone on your lunch breaks, especially if you have a desk job. Use that hour to open up and expand. I’m pretty confident this will change the way you feel at work.