How Can Body Language Help Caregivers?

Picture a person who is feeling defeated.  How do they look?  What is their posture?

Chances are you imagined a person who was sort of “curled up,” with their shoulders bent and head down.  Maybe they even hold their arms crossed in front of them.

This is a very natural pose to take when we’re being attacked; it serves to protect our vital organs, and keeping our head down can protect our face and throat.

Now picture someone who is very strong and self-confident.  What do you see?

Are they standing tall, feet firmly planted?  Are their hands on their hips?  (Think Superman or Wonder Woman here).

Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy became very interested in body language and the ways people seem to express feeling powerful or powerless.  What she learned can help you with your caregiving.

Dr. Cuddy noticed that in nature, when an animal feels threatened, or even wants to intimidate another animal who’s too close to their home territory, they make themselves appear larger.  A fish might puff itself up to appear larger, a bird will spread its wings and get up on tip-toe, and a mammal tends to “ruff” the fur around its neck and may rear up to seem more capable of defending itself.

Conversely, many animals will make themselves small by curling up into a ball or trying to climb into a tiny space for safety.

In her lab, Dr. Cuddy learned that when humans “make themselves big” for as little as 2 minutes, their stress hormone, cortisol, gets lower.  Their testosterone, a hormone that can makes us strong and focused, was raised.  This brief change in posture altered how the brain and body responded, allowing the person to feel more calm and courageous.

People who assumed the smaller posture had hormonal changes, too, but in the opposite direction.  Those folks experienced an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone, and a decrease in testosterone.

Who is better prepared to deal with a problem, succeed in an interview, or stay calm in a time of trouble?

Dr. Cuddy advises that taking on a big posture, spreading our feet and arms, for 2 minutes before an important conversation can make us think more clearly and feel calm and more self-assured.

Notice your own posture at different times throughout the day.  When you notice yourself curling up, make an effort to spread out for a few minutes.  Even putting your feet up on a desk, leaning back, and putting your hands behind your head (with elbows out), is a way to make yourself appear larger that Dr. Cuddy calls “the CEO position.”

Is there a part of caregiving that “beats you up” or makes you feel powerless?  Try “being big” for a few minutes, and let us know through the comment board what you discover!

You can learn more about Dr. Cuddy’s research by watching her TedX talk at: http://youtu.be/Ks-_Mh1QhMc

 

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Lisa Kendall is a social worker and clinical gerontologist with a private therapy and consulting practice.  Specializing in aging and Elder care, trauma recovery, and bereavement, Lisa also teaches at the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute and is an Educator for The Eden Alternative™.

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