Michelle Veneziano, DO

I knew that slumping in my chair was bad for my spine, but when I found out that it also gradually shifts the nervous system to fight or flight I was floored. Could bad posture actually raise my anxiety levels and reduce empathy and creativity? Understanding how the nervous system and body mechanics interact has been a game changer. Whats more, this knowledge has brought about such easy and enjoyable shifts in my habits I just have to share!

Here’s what I learned. The forward-rounded fetal position is actually the position of defeat. In terms of the stress response of “fight, flight, freeze, hide”, slumping, or cowering of the head and crowding around the heart, is the neurological equivalent of freeze/hide; what animals do when they give up. Likewise, psychologists use terms like “collapsed” and “resigned” to describe the posturing of depressed people.

I also learned that the opposite posturing, that of opening the chest and arching backward, has the effect of reversing survival mode. That “extension” actually shifts us from freeze/hide to the restorative setting of “rest, digest, heal, feel,” by which we return to connectivity, creativity and optimism.

5 quick and easy ways to shift your brain fast:

1. 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 are the least work.

2. Feel your feet on the ground

Feeling the ground and the weight of your feet on the floor – even 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 as discussed above. Visualizing roots going down into the Earth helps; I’ll let the quantum physicists explain how!

3. 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. It 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 (adrenalin) circuit of the stress response.

4. 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 you’ll breathe through your nose. This gives you the recirculated carbon dioxide your brain needs to remain calm (this is why people having panic attacks calm down when they breathe in and out of a paper bag).

5. Imagine a cord from the crown of your head to the sky

Somehow this visualization helps the body feel lighter and make the work of sitting seem less. I actually begin to feel like I’m a cobra rising from a basket. I’ve heard these effects explained in quantum mechanics but how to summarize? Suffice it to say we double blind our science for the same reason. Attention is powerful!

Lastly I will say that drinking enough water is key. Water helps keep the kidneys (renal) and associated adrenal (adrenalin) 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.” I disagree entirely. 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, DO is an osteopathic medical doctor in Mill Valley, California