Melancholics are said to be prone to ailments, and Conrad Hock notes that “the gait of the melancholic is slow and heavy“. We no longer believe in the Greek medical theory from which the four temperaments originate, yet there are some physiological elements that correspond to the otherwise psychological descriptors of each temperament.
For the melancholic, introversion, fatigue, anxiety, depression and fear of humiliation all contribute to postural problems that in turn exacerbate the psychological aspects in a kind of psychosomatic feedback loop.
Common defensive or submissive postural cues include internal rotation of the shoulders and forward head posture. Forward head posture is a common complaint, regardless of temperament, for people who spend a lot of time at computers. It puts strain on the upper back muscles, which must work harder to hold the head stable at such a distance from the body.
Fatigue in these muscles feels terrible. Yet for many of us these muscles are chronically fatigued and overburdened. In addition, such a posture subconsciously projects a lack of confidence, disengaging and suppressing the chest and the powerful muscles of the lower back and abdomen – the ‘core muscles’ that provide postural support and strength in everyday life and which are increasingly viewed as indispensable in good athletic performance.
Exacerbating this bad posture are the gut-related symptoms of anxiety. Stomach pain, bloating, and nausea discourage the activation of core muscles which would put pressure on the abdomen. At the same time, anxiety can cause abdominal muscle tension, albeit not the kind of tension that would contribute to effective use of the core muscles.
So while the upper body slumps and collapses defensively, the lower torso is disengaged and unable to provide support. The upper and lower limbs my function fine in isolation, but lack the appropriate grounding in a unified torso.
Correcting postural weaknesses
It can be extremely difficult to correct these problems without good hands-on guidance. Part of the problem is that there are multiple variables and it can be difficult to correct elements in isolation. For example, the instruction “put your shoulders back” is based on a difference in appearance between a good posture and a bad one. But the instruction is misleading in many cases because the appropriate correction to internally rotated shoulders is scapular retraction. Simply pushing your shoulders back will fix nothing and may even increase muscular tension. “Retract your scapulae” is better advice, but it still needs to be specified that the scapulae are to be retracted by tightening of the muscles between and below them, with the understanding that habit has left these muscles lengthened and weakened, so it will take time and practice to strengthen them.
“Suck your stomach in” is another good example. Sucking in your stomach is a part of the process that tightens core abdominal muscles, but the instruction is easily misinterpreted, with people sucking “up” the abdomen and lifting the rib cage, or failing to tighten the abdomen with the kind of “pushing out” that really activates the bracing effect of the core muscles.
Making corrections like these is an ongoing process, requiring careful research. We’re fortunate that a number of exercise disciplines have come online with professionals and enthusiastic amateurs offering a range of insights. I’ve found, for example, useful material on tightening the core from powerlifters. If it works for someone lifting hundreds of kilograms then it can’t be too far wrong for daily life. Do your research across a range of resources, be thorough, and of course be careful. There might be only one “right” way to do it, but there are numerous ways to get it wrong, and the precise solution or correction may vary from person to person. There’s also some flat-out contradictory advice out there.
Postural correction can also be frustrating to a melancholic because we love singular, all-encompassing solutions, and there are plenty of people willing to push an isolated exercise or postural element as the key to the whole puzzle of posture. We’re also a bit afraid of hard work, and the idea of gradual improvement or slow retraining can frustrate us, especially when we’re not entirely sure that the instructions are adequate.
But the logic of posture does meet a kind of ideal in its own right, and the pleasure of stretching muscles that have, perhaps for decades, been locked in inefficient and exhausting positions makes this enterprise well worthwhile. After all, we might never be completely free of worries, anxieties, and all-consuming existential despair, but breaking the physical side of the vicious cycle can provide a real sense of relief from the psychological side. The term ‘body language’ is misleading in this sense: you can tell lies about how confident you feel, but a good posture feels ‘confident’ because it is strong, and a bad posture feels weak because it really is weak.