Remember when you were minutes away from walking into a crucial meeting or a dream interview, or at the doorway of an intimidating examination hall.
Were you anxiously biting your nails, sitting shoulders hunched, scrunched up re-reading your notes, anticipating the worst in the waiting area? If so, this all sounds perfectly normal behaviour. Yet, according to recent cognitive experiments, this was exactly the worst way to prepare for success.
So what could you have done differently and more importantly what can you do next time you feel under the cosh to perform or hold it together? While it may be a bit too late now for your Physics GCSE, there are some simple alternatives that are definitely great news for the workplace.
Well meaning advice to‘Shape up’ or ‘Pull yourself together’ may not actually be as simplistic as it sounds. In fact, the work of social psychologists suggests that the way we hold our body affects how we feel, as opposed to just the other way round.
Known as Embodied Cognition, this concept suggests that our mind, body and emotions run both ways. Our internal dialogue and subsequent feelings influence the way our body reacts. More significantly, the form of our body apparently triggers our thoughts and feelings.
Professor Amy Cuddy suggests that rather than trying to magic away our anxieties through willpower alone, we can pose our way into different mental states. By simply adopting expansive poses, she argues that we can lower our cortisol or stress levels and boost our levels of testosterone, the hormone linked to power.
As the opposite is true when we adopt small, collapsed and helpless postures, our challenge is therefore to stay conscious of what our body is saying to ourselves, as well as to the rest of the world.
As an experiment, try holding your body in powerful poses now. For example, lean back in a chair with your feet up and your hands behind your head. Even after just a few minutes your hormone levels will be affected.
In real life, what can you do? Perhaps walking into your next important business meeting arms aloft, as if you’ve just won the biggest prize may not be your most endearing entrance, but it’s certainly an interesting twist to prepping yourself for success.
Back to the beginning. If you were to stretch out expansively before your next big interview, sit tall when you’re in the waiting area or ‘get those shoulders back’ (as my mother helpfully shouted to my self conscious eleven year old self as I crossed the road to my new secondary school) you could actually be helping your confidence from the outside in.
Memories aside, there are obviously hundreds of further studies on how our physiology affects our emotional wellbeing. We’re told on a daily basis that regular exercise and vigorous movement reduces stress, boosts our endorphins and our mood, sharpens our minds, grounds us and inspires our creativity.
Research suggests that Yoga, for example, is especially effective. MRI scans employed by researchers at Boston University School of Medicine found a definite correlation between the physiology of yoga postures and brain chemistry. Specifically this related to improved mental health as GABA levels were increased and anxiety correspondingly decreased.
It is not breaking news to experienced Yoga practitioners that particular yoga poses create different emotional states, but for those who want to take this idea a stretch further, it is worth exploring these ideas some more. You can find poses to quiet your mind when you’re nervous or liven you up when you’re shattered or discover how to best open yourself up to new ideas and be in the best frame of mind for your team’s next creativity session.
When your personal pep talk becomes physical, when you get your body poses working for you, when you sit up, open out and shape shift in advance of stressful situations, you may be better equipped to conquer your world - or at least help yourself to feel better in the process.
So, what shape are you in?