By Jeremy Stunt

I regularly work with people who want to be more resourceful and resilient at coping with change and uncertainty. As an ontological coaching practitioner I do this by helping my clients explore how they are engaging with their challenges in a combination of three areas: their language, their moods and emotions, and their physiology.

We can usually see how our language, thoughts, attitudes and feelings can impact how we are dealing with issues. But the relevance of our body and physiology is more subtle especially as many of us have grown up with the view that the mind is wholly separate from the body.

Almost 10 years ago as I began to transition from a career in banking to become a self-employed coach, the ontological methodology helped (and continues to help) me as both a learner and a practitioner with my clients. The impact was so profound that my mission became how to bring the benefits of this approach to others.

But I found it hard to recognise the role of the body in learning. And as I began coaching lawyers, bankers and engineers I found I wasn’t doing a very good job of helping others to see the relevance of the somatic domain. How do you help someone make the connections between mood, posture and performance in the workplace?

One of my personal barriers to learning was a reluctance to be an experiential learner. Some of us find it hard to just try something to see if it works; we may feel the need for a “base level” of theoretical evidence before being comfortable enough to engage with a particular subject. It wasn’t easy for me to “just do it”.

My natural curiosity about the workings of the human mind and body led to me explore connections between the ontological domains of language, mood and physiology. Some of what I found helped me to be more confident at trying new things with myself and with my clients. Now I’m much better now as an experiential learner and at encouraging my clients to try things too.

Those of you reading who have been coached by me to practice walking the street from a body of curiosity and ambition know what I am talking about. But if you are grappling with change and uncertainty and need some convincing about the connection between mind and body, you may wish to check out the list of research articles below that I believe shows why we must not neglect the domain of the body.

Physiology is intricately connected with our moods, the way we communicate and how we show up by embodying behaviour. An ontological awareness can bring powerful insights in this somatic domain. The body matters for change.


The list of articles:

Physiology and the domain of the body

1. Act like you’re helpless and you’ll be helpless
A study has revealed that subjects who had been temporarily placed in a slumped, depressed physical posture later appeared to develop helplessness more readily, as assessed by their lack of persistence while solving a frustrating task, than did subjects who had been placed in an expansive, upright posture. 

Riskind J. H. and Gotay C. C. (1982), “Physical Posture: Could It Have Regulatory or Feedback Effects on Motivation and Emotion?” Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 6, No. 3, 1982

2. Sit up straight and you’ll have a more positive mood
A study has shown that posing in positive, upright postures leads individuals to rate themselves higher in leadership than posing in negative, slouched postures.

Arnette S. L. and Pettijohn II T.F. (2012), “The Effects of Posture on Self-Perceived Leadership.” International Journal of Business and Social Science Vol. 3 No. 14

3. How confident are we that we are right about something? It may depend on our posture.
Researchers have found that people who sit up straight are more likely to have greater confidence in their own thoughts compared to those who were slumped over their desks. In an experiment, participants with upright postures had more confidence in their own thoughts, whether those thoughts were positive or negative. We may think that our confidence is comes from our own thoughts but actually our posture affects how much we believe in what we’re thinking. In essence, our attitudes are embodied.

Briñol P., Petty R. and Wagner B. (2009), “Body posture effects on self-evaluation: A self-validation approach.” European Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 39, Issue 6, pages 1053–1064, October 2009

4. Your body contains your memory
Research shows that people will be quicker at remembering autobiographical events when their body positions during retrieval are similar to the body positions in the original events as compared to when their body position was incongruent. This is embodied cognition.

Dijkstra K., Kaschak M.P. and Zwaan R. A. (2007), “Body posture facilitates retrieval of autobiographical memories.” Cognition, vol. 102(1), Jan 2007, 139-149

5. Folding your arms stops you from giving in
In an experiment, inducing participants to cross their arms led to greater persistence on an unsolvable anagram. A second experiment revealed that arm crossing led to better performance on solvable anagrams, and that this effect was mediated by greater persistence.

Friedman R. and Elliot A. J. (2008), “The effect of arm crossing on persistence and performance.” European Journal of Social Psychology Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 38, 449–461

6. Posture impacts how we are empowered to act independently of our actual hierarchical position
Experiments have shown that whether people are in high- or low-power roles, it is their posture – expansive (wide open and tall) or constricted – that affects the implicit activation of power and the taking of action. Your role has a stronger effect than your posture on your sense of power but posture has a larger effect on actual action. The research is described in The Economist.

Huang, L. Galinsky, A. D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Guilory, L. E. (2011). “Powerful postures versus powerful roles: Which is the proximate correlate of thought and behavior?” Psychological Science, 22(1), 95-102.

7. High-power posing changes your neurochemistry
Posing for just one minute in a high-power nonverbal display (expansive posture) as opposed to a low-power nonverbal display (constrictive posture) causes neuroendocrine and behavioural changes for both men and women. High-power poses lead to elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk; low-power posers exhibit the opposite pattern. Embodiment extends beyond mere thinking and feeling, to physiology and subsequent behavioural choices. Read more about the experiment.

Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J., Yap, A. J. (2010). “Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance.” Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363-1368.

8. Grin and bear it: faking a smile, consistently and measurably elevates our moods
Participants in an experiment who held a pencil between their teeth thereby facilitating the muscles associated with smiling (without them posing a smiling face) typically found more humour in cartoons presented to them compared to the participants who held a pen with their lips to inhibit muscles associated with smiling. Participants who could not smile rated the cartoons as less funny.

Strack, F., Martin, L.L., & Stepper, S. (1988). “Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768–777.

9. Checking your email? Don’t forget to breathe!
A research project has shown that when people read email, their breathing patterns can change. 80% of the people in the project appeared to have email apnoea – they held their breath or breathed shallowly. Holding your breath puts your body in “fight or flight” mode and also contributes to stress-related diseases because it upsets the body’s balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is particularly important for regulating the body’s immune system but also has a role to play in learning, memory, sleeping, feeling pain and depression. Read more.

10. Chest beating reduces anxiety prior to public speaking
It has been said that if we beat (or tap firmly) our chest we will generate additional testosterone in our body and this will take several minutes to dissipate. So if you are feeling nervous about giving a speech in public, then lightly beating your chest (off stage!) will help calm your nerves and increase your self-confidence at the beginning of your speech.

11. If you tense your muscles, you can strengthen your willpower
Our bodies can with willpower and to facilitate the self-regulation essential for the attainment of long-term goals. Tensing your muscles can help firm willpower and firmed willpower facilitates your ability to withstand immediate pain, overcome tempting food, consume unpleasant medicines, and attend to immediately disturbing but essential information, provided doing so is seen as providing long term benefits.

Hung, I. W. & Labroo, A. (2011). “From firm muscles to firm willpower: Understanding the role of embodied cognition in self-regulation.” Journal of Consumer Research, 37(6), 1046-1064.

12. Washing your hands impacts how you feel about decisions you’ve made
Physical hand cleansing changes how an individual regards a decision they have just made. In particular it removes the need to justify decisions. Not only does the physical act of washing one’s hands ease the guilt we feel about past unethical deeds but it seems that the act also removes our natural inclination to validate even trivial past decisions. So if you’re having a hard time grappling with a decision you’ve just made, try washing your hands. Here is a description of an experiment.

Lee, S. and Schwarz N. (2010), “Washing Away Postdecisional Dissonance,” Science 7 May 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5979, p. 709.

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