Study finds link between posture and pain tolerance

Mothers have been telling their kids to stop slouching for ages. It turns out that mom was onto something and that poor posture not only makes a bad impression, but can actually make you physically weaker.

According to a study by Scott Wiltermuth, assistant professor of management organization at the USC Marshall School of Business, and Vanessa K. Bohns, postdoctoral fellow at the J.L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, adopting dominant versus submissive postures actually decreases your sensitivity to pain.

The study, “It Hurts When I Do This (or You Do That)” published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that by simply adopting more dominant poses, people feel more powerful, in control and able to tolerate more distress. Out of the individuals studied, those who used the most dominant posture were able to comfortably handle more pain than those assigned a more neutral or submissive stance.

Wiltermuth and Bohns also expanded on previous research that shows the posture of a person with whom you interact will affect your pose and behavior. In this case, they found that those adopting a submissive pose in response to their partner’s dominant pose showed a lower threshold for pain.

Fake it until you make it

While most people will curl up into a ball when they’re in pain, Bohn’s and Wiltermuth’s research indicates you should do the opposite. In fact, their research suggests that taking that position may make the experience more painful because it will make you feel like you have no control over your circumstances, which may in turn intensify your anticipation of the pain.

Instead, try sitting or standing up straight, pushing your chest out and expanding your body. These behaviors can help create a sense of power and control that may as a result make the procedure more tolerable. Based on previous research, adopting a powerful, expansive posture rather than constricting your body may also lead to elevated testosterone, which is associated with increased pain tolerance, and decreased cortisol, which may make the experience less stressful.

Keeping your chin up might really work to manage emotional pain

While previous research shows that individuals have used pain relievers to address emotional pain, it’s possible that assuming dominant postures may make remembering a breakup or some distressing emotional event less painful.

Caregivers need to let go

Caregivers often try to baby their charges in order to help make things easier and alleviate stress. In doing this, they actually force those they’re caring for into a more submissive position and thus, according to this new research, possibly render them more susceptible to experiencing pain. Instead, this research suggests that caregivers take a more submissive position and surrender control to those who are about to undergo a painful procedure to lessen the intensity of the pain experienced.

SOURCES: University of Southern California news release. “It hurts when I do this (or you do that): Posture and pain tolerance” by Wiltermuth et al. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, June 7, 2011.