Physiological Differences - Yoga on the mountain

Physiological Differences Provoked by Positive and Negative Emotions

I invite you to do experience a little activity with me right now, if you are seated or standing, just to feel some physiological differences.

Posture One

Make sure your feet are squarely on floor, your arms unfolded and resting by your side or in your lap and look straight ahead. Close your eyes.   Gradually, let your head drop forward and let your shoulders follow, rounding and slouching forward.   You’ll find that your tummy muscles are likely to hang out!   While you’re in this slouched forward posture, notice how that feels and what kind of thoughts come up for you.

Okay snap out of that one and give yourself a shake.  Shake it off!

Posture Two

Now, let’s try another posture. Same starting position – and look ahead.  Close your eyes and this time straighten up a little more.  Tighten those tummy muscles so they support you and pull your shoulders back so that your chest is high and your face is held in a neutral position.  Imagine someone is pulling a string from the crown of your head so that you’re sitting really straight and feel very supported.  Now stay for a few seconds; breath comfortably; and notice how that feels and what comes up for you.

Which posture felt better in the sense that you felt greater power in your body, and your breathing was deeper and you felt more expanded?  I’m hoping the second posture where your back was supporting you and you  were holding your head high felt better to you.

Physiological Differences

I invited you to experience this because these two postures illustrate the physiological differences between the impact of negative and positive emotions in your body and your thinking.

Negative Emotions close us down;  they shut us off from others and from possibilities; we become inflexible; they can deplete us; over time they can compound and can increase illness, depression, and, in the extreme can result in tragic circumstances.

Positive Emotions open us up; they expand our hearts, our peripheral vision – literally we see more; they increase our understanding, and tolerance of others.  We  listen to others.  Our creativity increases,  as does our ability to be more courageous.  Positivity expands us and gives us hope and possibility.

Emotions are Embodied

Emotions are embodied.  They don’t live in your head.  You are an emotional being.   You have responses to emotions.  They work for you or against you.  And they don’t go unnoticed. They show up in your posture, your voice tone, your facial expressions. Emotions are embodied feeling states that can change your thinking and behavior.

I want acknowledge a person in the field of positive psychology whose work I love and who has deeply influenced my work.  Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  I became aware of her work through my study of Appreciative Inquiry.

She heads up  the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory (a.k.a., PEP Lab) and she  has made her work the study of positive emotions.

Her scientific research shows “how our day-to-day emotional experiences affect the very course of our lives.”

Broadening and Building Positive Emotions

Based on her research, she has offered the world of positive psyschology “The Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions.”  Her findings document that when people feel positive emotions, there is an opening up versus a shutting down effect.  This “broadening” effect of positive emotions describes the cognitive, emotional, and physiological changes we experience when positive emotions are aroused.

As just mentioned, when you feel positive emotions, you momentarily expand your attention and thinking, and you are more open to receive others and their ideas.

Moreover, positivity opens you up to possibility, literally expands your peripheral vision, and opens your veins. Instead of focusing on “me,”  you appreciate others and think more about “we.” Positive emotions contribute to your ability to speedily bounce back from stress, thereby building your resiliency and can potentially transform you for the better.

Positivity Ratio of 3:1

The “building” effect is the accumulation of positivity over time. Fredrickson’s research indicates there is a ratio of 3:1, which is the tipping point for building your positive emotion reserves. If you can, at minimum, think, talk, and behave three times positive to one time negative, then you are on the way to building emotional resiliency that will help you flourish instead of languish.

A key finding of this “building” effect is that it helps you recover from negativity, stress, or life-threatening situations more quickly. Called the “undo” effect, it means that, when faced with adversity, those who have greater positivity reserves, or resiliency, will more readily bounce back and move on. Physiologically, their heart rates recover far more quickly, which is much healthier in the short and long term.

How aware are you of your ratio of positive to negative thoughts and actions in your life?  You need at a minimum 3 positive experiences to one negative to increase the positivity in your life.  Pause throughout your day to notice what you can be grateful for, appreciate or celebrate: three opportunities to bring some positivity into your daily routine. And, start to notice how your body posture and your mindset impact your physiology.

To take a look at Dr. Fredrickson's two very popular books on Positivity, please go to the Resources page and you'll find them there.