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Feeling stressed? It might not just be in your head. How muscles affect your mood. 2024-04-17 06:18:35

Many of us associate neck and back pain with spending hours hunched over our devices. We also know that good posture and core strength can help prevent these pains. But researchers say it can also help us feel less stressed.

It all comes down to the inner part of our adrenal glands—the adrenal medulla—that releases adrenaline into the body, says Peter Strick, a leading neurobiologist from the University of Pittsburgh.

When we experience stress, the brain sends a signal to the adrenal medulla. This signal initiates the "fight or flight" response: increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, nausea, and other unpleasant symptoms.

Until recently, most scientists believed that movement and posture had nothing to do with the interaction between the brain and the adrenal medulla. In fact, Strick says he was skeptical for a long time about claims that exercises like yoga and Pilates could reduce stress. "I needed to see that there was a neural connection, that there was a real biological basis," he says.

Mapping neural pathways throughout the body

In 2016, Strick decided to investigate the connection between posture and stress using a method he first employed in the late '90s. Strick invented a process that allowed him to introduce a virus into an organ to track the neural networks connecting the brain and muscles.

"So we put a virus into the adrenal medulla and traced its path to the cortex of the brain, and then we mapped which areas of the cortex influence the adrenal medulla," he says. "And here's where the surprise came in."

Essentially, Strick and his research group found that our response to stress is not solely controlled by the "thinking" part of the brain. Other parts of the brain, including those that control our muscles, also send signals to the adrenal medulla. The area of the brain communicating with the adrenal glands also receives signals from core muscles. Therefore, strengthening these muscles, says Strick, can modulate this "fight or flight" stress response.

Think of it as a three-way conversation between your core muscles, adrenal glands, and brain—they're all talking to each other and influencing your mental well-being.

"There's a clear connection between how we move, how we think, and how we feel," says Strick. "The muscles that control posture, our core muscles, have an influence on an organ that's involved in stress."

Want to feel less tense? Try strengthening your core and sitting up straight.

When many of us spend the entire day hunched over our phones or pounding away at the computer, we often feel mentally drained, tense, or anxious. Strick recommends strengthening your core muscles to make sitting upright all day feel more natural. "Bend and then stand up straight," he says. "And see how it affects your mood and influence."

He also says that this discovery was a wake-up call for his own health. He credits his children, who pushed him to try Pilates and yoga many years ago. "And I said, 'Come on, you know, give me a break. I don't have time for this nonsense,'" he says. "But as it turns out, they were right."

This story was written by Rachel Faulkner White and edited by Amanda Orr. It's part of Body Electric—a six-part NPR series exploring the relationship between technology and the human body.

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