“Pull your shoulders back.”
We’ve all heard it (or said it) a million times. We’re taught to stand upright, lift our gaze, lead with confidence. Is this all there is to rounded shoulders - a projection of confidence to the outside world? Or do rounded shoulders have a deeper story to tell?
Walk with me as we explore:
- Why Shoulders Round
- When Animals Fight
- Sheltered Hearts
- The Molding Problem
- Why Somatic Coaching Fails
- Why Postural Correction Fails
- The Liberated Heart | Standing Tall Yet Feeling Deeply
Why Shoulders Round | Structural Asymmetry vs Somatic Coping
There are two primary causes of rounding shoulders - structural imbalance, and fear.
Let’s take these one at a time.
Structural imbalances can arise from strength or flexibility imbalances between agonist and antagonist muscle groups. They can also arise from repeated movement (or lack thereof) patterns that mold these asymmetries into your myofascia - soft tissue that connects muscles, joints, and bones.
Simply, if somebody’s pushing strength exceeds their pulling strength, it’s quite possible residual tension in the pecs and anterior deltoids pulls the shoulders forward, while weakness in the muscles of the back - the posterior deltoids, traps and rhomboids - fails to counterbalance. This doesn’t mean someone is overdoing their strength training, it’s quite possible there’s just a marked difference in strength between push and pull vector muscles.
If we can’t attribute that imbalance to a strength imbalance, but we’re still looking at a structural origin, then slouching comes from slouching. Hope that gave you a chuckle.
Movement patterns repeated over weeks to months to years wind up molding soft tissue to make those repeated patterns easier to repeat, but other, more functional patterns, more challenging. Sitting and typing, reclining in bed and texting, watching tv on the couch, can all reinforce this structural pattern of slouching. More on this below, in The Molding Problem.
And now to the less obvious, and more challenging origin of slouching - fear. We might also say insecurity, self-doubt, low self esteem, etc. But the origin of all of these states… is fear, deep seated, and often unconscious. To explain why this somatic coping mechanism - rounded shoulders - may manifest from unconscious fear, let’s look to those with very similar nervous systems, but less conscious awareness.
When Animals Fight
We’re all familiar with the fight-or-flight response. Most of us have felt those moments of anger or fear when adrenaline floods the system, and versions of us we barely recognize manifest. There are specific biological compensations that occur among all animals, and most humans, unless they’re highly trained to perform amidst high-stress conditions. These shifts:
- Digestion ceases and blood floods skeletal muscles - fuel for action
- Pupils dilate and focus - peripheral vision declines, but focus improves
- Sensitivity plummets - pain tolerance skyrockets
- Strength and stamina increase
- Breath rises in the chest
- Cognition declines - blood drains from the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system takes over
- And… shoulders round unconsciously to protect viscera - your organs.
Sheltered Hearts | Of Kept Pain and Stored Trauma
The fight-or-flight response isn’t meant to be regularly stimulated or charged. It’s an unbelievably powerful biological response built for very short bouts of peak systemic performance. As such, when nature is in balance, the compensations caused by this response are short lived, and very quickly secede.
But not always.
And in such cases where stress, fear, and anxiety are not short-lived acute experiences, but rather are more enduring, then the symptoms of stress mentioned above, including structural compensations - rounded shoulders - survive the episodic response.
This could be the result of a single, acute incident or traumatic experience, or it could be the result of ongoing, moderate stress. Our brains try to make sense of these with categorical distinctions, but our bodies can’t really tell the difference. And the signals they send via the nervous system to our brains are the same.
Unbeknownst to you, millions of years of evolution are playing out in your nervous system, rounding your shoulders for you… to protect your heart. Your body is on autopilot, protecting you from undefined, but felt, threat. In preparing to fight or flee, your heart must be protected.
Here are the first few images that came up when I Googled ‘Broken Heart':
The shoulders tell a story.
The Molding Problem
This is where things get tricky. Fascial molding and movement patterning aren’t merely cause or consequence, but serve as a reinforcing psychosomatic loop. This is why standing meditation is, and always will be, the single most important practice of Weightlessness Training.
Standing meditation is what severs the loop once and for all, it’s the ultimate reset - true neutral.
Whether rounded shoulders are of a top-down (fear/insecurity) or bottom-up (movement patterns) origin, merely living out that alignment imbalance will not only produce the tension and relaxation asymmetries that could have caused it, but it can also reinforce, if not cause, anxiety, stress, and fear.
Your nervous system isn’t a one-way highway. It sends signals from the brain to the body, yes, but it also receives signals from the body that carry deep evolutionary weight - the forms and signals of an animal under duress.
And it’s because of this problem, that two common solutions fail, if implemented without the other.
When Somatic Coaching Fails
A top-down approach, one that looks deeply at the psychobiological states present when shoulders are round, can be extremely beneficial. One can become acquainted with their own movement patterns, as well as accompanying mindsets and emotions. And with improving awareness, greater control over one’s posture and movement patterns can materialize, and with them, energetic shifts that release held pains and traumas.
In matters of low-grade stress or bouts of anxiety, this can be highly effective. Where it begins to fail is when one’s environmental pressures exceed their mind-body capacity - that is, the strength, stamina, mindset, and processing potential of emotional triggers. If someone lives in a state of fear, works in high pressure environments, or has very deep seated trauma, then postural corrections will take a back seat to conditioned patterns whenever stress exceeds awareness. That is, when survival trumps growth.
The solution for this is two-fold. The first step is mind-body conditioning that increases resilience as well as awareness. The second step is to adopt a practice of conscious postural correction.
When Postural Correction Fails
A challenge with a bottom-up approach - treating physical structure independently of psychoemotional origins - is that most of us are unaware most of the time. Correcting one’s posture often enough can and will send alternative signals to the brain - those of a safe, confident, and relaxed animal.
Corrected frequently enough, over a long enough period, and both physical structure as well as mindset will shift dramatically. But…
But you gotta do it. And to do it, means you’re aware whenever the shoulders are rounding.
It should seem clear that while both of these approaches can be highly effective, that the stronger one’s mind-body foundation is, the easier they’ll be to implement.
Somatic awareness as a solution fails if one is not in control over their biology - when they’re triggered, angry, or afraid. Improving global resilience - from strength and structure to cellular resilience - buys the time and space to consciously choose another way of standing in the here and now.
Postural correction fails when one is not consciously aware of their structure. Improving awareness in general, but of physical structure in particular, along with associated moods and mindsets, allows for more frequent corrections and fewer regressions.
The Liberated Heart | Standing Tall Yet Feeling Deeply
The sheltered heart is one of pain. But also of purpose.
There are deep wisdoms in the mind-body - default programs refined over millions of years, meant to protect and sustain you. They are powerful, and in their own way, beautiful.
But there comes a time when the patterns that kept you going begin to hold you back.
Is that next phase of life helped or hindered by those patterns?
Is the version of you that you envision becoming - the highest expression of YOU - one that is fragile and in need of numbing, hiding, and protection, or one that stands tall, shoulders back, heart exposed, open, optimistic, curious, and ready to take on life?
Liberate your heart, and...
What does the version of you standing tall and feeling deeply look like?