A man goes to see his doctor and says ‘Doc, it hurts when I do this” and the doctor says “Then don’t do that” Turns out that advice is more than just the punchline for a very old joke, it’s also based on sound scientific research. At least now it is.
The researchers say that how you hold yourself, your posture, can have a big influence on your sensitivity to pain.They say the more dominant a pose you adopt, the less sensitive to pain you are; and the reverse is true, the more submissive a pose you adopt the more likely you are to experience increased sensitivity to pain.
Posing the question
Scott Wiltermuth and Vanessa Bohns published their wonderfully titled study, It Hurts When I Do This (or You Do That), in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They found that by having people adopt a more dominant pose the individuals felt more powerful, more in control of circumstances, and better able to handle stress or distress. They also found that those who were assigned to adopt the most dominant poses were better able to handle pain than people asked to adopt a more neutral or submissive pose.
Now, being a researcher means being kind of sneaky. They told the participants in the study that they were taking part in research into the health benefits of exercise at work and got them to get into a variety of yoga poses – some were powerful, dynamic poses, others were much more submissive with everything curled inwards. But how did they measure their sense of pain? Simple, they put a blood pressure cuff on their arm and kept pumping it up way beyond a normal level and told the study participants to tell them when to stop, when it hurt.
Those who were given the powerful yoga poses had a higher threshold of pain than those given the submissive poses. Cool eh!
What’s really interesting is that the researchers say that we can use this kind of information in every day life. For instance, if you are in pain your natural reaction may be to be very nurturing and protective of yourself, to curl up into the proverbial ball to protect yourself. Wiltermuth and Bohns say that may have precisely the opposite effect. By making yourself adopt such a submissive pose you may be increasing your sensitivity to pain, because you are essentially saying you have no control over what’s happening to you or how you react to it.
Wiltermuth and Bohns say instead of curling up you should sit or stand up straight, and push your chest out. This can create a sense of power and a sense of control over what’s happening, or at least reduce your sense that things are out of control.
So, turns out your mother was right after all – isn’t she always – posture does matter. Not just in how others view you. But also in how you view yourself.