Posturing for Power and Pain Tolerance

Sources and recommended reading:

1. It hurts when I do this (or you do that): Posture and pain tolerance by Bohns and Wiltermuth
2. Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance by Carney et al

As chiropractors we certainly appreciate the importance of posture in terms of healthy spinal function. But could the simple act of changing your physical posture actually produce feelings of power? What about influencing your behavioural selection? And are there specific body poses that could increase testosterone production, decrease stress hormone levels and increase your tolerance to pain?

Well, in this edition of Leaders Read we take a look at two related research studies: the first focuses on what’s called the embodiment of power (1); and the second takes this further to examine the relationship of ‘power poses’ to pain tolerance (2).

We tend to think of posture as an expression of a powerful behavioural state; in other words a powerful person naturally positions their body in a certain way. This occurs right throughout the animal kingdom and it’s all about expanding the body, being perceived as larger, and basically occupying more space. Think of the way a cat gallops sideways at an enemy in order to appear larger; the way a chimpanzee expands its chest; and the way an executive swaggers into a boardroom and leans back on a chair with fingers interlocked behind the head.

But what about the opposite effect? Could simply assuming the posture actually produce the powerful state? Well that certainly seems to be the case. The link between body position and mental state is well known and has been popularised by the likes of Anthony Robbins and Neuro-Linguistic Programming just to name a few. But these research studies appear to have added another layer of understanding.

Power as a Neuroendocrine Phenomenon

First of all, let’s look at power. A neuroendocrine signature of power is testosterone. We know that higher levels of this hormone are associated with feeling of self-efficacy, a sense of control over body and mind, positive feelings, and the willingness to take the necessary risks to reap rewards in life. Testosterone levels spike after an animal wins over an adversary, and also in a stock trader after a winning trade. The effect upon the brain is to increase confidence regarding the next encounter and the level of risk you’re willing to take to win. Cortisol, on the other hand, is a stress hormone that has the opposite effect. Behaviour changes toward reducing risk and retreating towards protection. There is a feeling of powerlessness and reduced self-efficacy where you no longer feel in control. So what’s the relationship with posture?

Well the experiment by Carney et al (2) correlated neuroendocrine and behavioural changes to body posture. Those subjects that displayed high-power postures experienced elevated testosterone levels, decreased cortisol levels, and feelings of power and risk tolerance. Those subjects in submissive or low energy postures demonstrated the opposite physiological and psychological changes.

The study by Bohns and Wiltermuth (1) then expanded on these findings to examine pain tolerance. Physiologically, we know that a sustained increase in cortisol is associated with a greater tendency for pain. Not only that, but it’s well recognised that pain is as much psychological as it is physiological. Negative beliefs regarding self-efficacy and a lack of control over one’s life provide a rich substrate for chronic pain. Not surprisingly then, when subjects assumed more dominant postures they experienced an increase in measured tolerance to pain. Conversely, adopting more submissive ‘closed body’ postures increased one’s sensitivity to pain.

Now there was also another interesting dimension to this study. And that was that simply interacting with other people who adopt powerful postures seems to influence your tendency for pain tolerance. In an experimental interpersonal interaction, participants who interacted with a submissively postured person enjoyed increased feelings of power and a lower tolerance to pain. When the other person was postured in a dominant and powerful way, the subject instead produced more cortisol and was more sensitive to pain.

The findings of these studies certainly have wide-reaching implications. Take for example the doctor-patient interaction. Your non-verbal interactions will potentially influence your patient’s pain tolerance and feeling of self-control. On the one hand it’s important to exude confidence, which enhances the effectiveness of the patient interaction; but on the other, being perceived as too dominant may elicit negative emotions in the patient. Striking the right balance for the patient in front of you is undoubtedly an art. And then think of the potential effects of how you position yourself in a business negotiation or job interview; the possibilities are endless...

Postural awareness; a simple idea with such a big impact.

The Central Idea

Intentionally adopting physical postures associated with power and leadership actually produces elements of power internally. Physiological responses to confident body positions include increased testosterone levels, reduced cortisol levels and an increased tolerance to pain. This results in more confident behaviours and powerful decision-making.

How Can You Apply It?

1. Helping your patients to improve their posture could just help reduce their tendency for chronic pain and improve their overall sense of well-being.

2. Focussing on improving your own postural habits will enhance your sense of power and enable your leadership qualities.
What example are you setting?

3. As a clinician in your office domain be wary of not being perceived to be too dominating in your body language or verbal communication, as this has the potential to make a patient’s condition worse if they feel a lack of self-control. One could extrapolate from these studies that working in a more collaborative way with your patient empowers them and provides the right context for reduced pain and healing to take place.

We hope you enjoyed this Leaders Read.

Dr Anthony D. Nicholson BSc. M.Chiro


1. Bohns, V. K., & Wiltermuth, S. S. (2011). It hurts when I do this (or you do that): Posture and pain tolerance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

2. Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance. Psychological Science. 21(10), 1363–1368.
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