Looking to Change Your Life? Try Acting
Have you ever had difficulty opening a jar, only to find that a second attempt while yelling aloud did the trick? Or that an audible grunt makes completing your last barbell squat seem easier? Have you ever walked onto the field with your teammates and carried yourself with a sort of dominant, arrogant posture meant to intimidate your opponent – and did that help you feel even more powerful than before?
Chances are we’ve all had moments in which “acting” – feigning anger with our voices or power with our bodies – makes that emotion come to life. Think little moments, too: perhaps you’re driving, alone, and come to a red light stopped alongside a group of very attractive women (is it obvious I’m recalling moments from my awkward youth?). Would you place a hand at the top of the wheel and angle your body to resemble one of those action film stars, not only to desperately convince them of your coolness level, but also to influence how you feel about yourself? Me too!
There’s a powerful interconnection between our bodies and minds: how we think affects how we feel which affects how we behave, while at the same time how we behave affects our feelings and thinking patterns. Want to feel more confident? Some people turn to manipulating their self-talk, or their internal dialogue; others might stand taller and smile more. Both interventions – the thinking one and the behavioral one – require some acting.
Remember the research detailing how test subjects were tricked into acting a certain way based on what they thought they were wearing? Those who wore a white coat they believed belonged to a doctor were more attentive and perceptive in several experimental tasks than those who wore the same coat they believed to belong to a painter. Clothing – like raising our voices or dominating our posture – puts us into a unique psychological state, allowing us to “act” according to the meaning we affix to our clothes or body language.
Consider the research on body language: Acting dominantly versus submissively can increase strength and actually decrease sensitivity to pain. The study found that by simply adopting more dominant poses, people feel more powerful, in control and able to tolerate more distress. Out of the individuals studied, those who used the most dominant posture were able to comfortably handle more pain than those assigned a more neutral or submissive stance. Previous research has also found that adopting a powerful, expansive posture rather than constricting your body may also lead to elevated testosterone, which is associated with increased pain tolerance, and decreased cortisol, which may make the experience less stressful. It might, however, be less the physical change in posture and more the dominance we feel in standing taller that contributes to hormonal changes.
And how about the research on manipulating our actual language – “vocal acting” – to increase strength? Recent results show that participants produced more power on an exercise bike if they had sworn – that is, used profanity – as well as a stronger handgrip in a separate experiment. It’s been shown that swearing makes people more able to tolerate pain. “A possible reason for this is that it stimulates the body’s sympathetic nervous system,” lead author Dr. Stephens noted, which is the system that makes your heart pound when you are in danger. “If that is the reason, we would expect swearing to make people stronger too — and that is just what we found in these experiments. But when we measured heart rate and some other things you would expect to be affected if the sympathetic nervous system was responsible for this increase in strength, we did not find significant changes.” So why swearing has these effects on strength and pain tolerance remains to be discovered. Perhaps acting strong – through the simple forming of certain vulgar language – gives us the impression that we really are stronger, which stimulates our efforts and makes the acting a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Think of who you’d like to become and consider how you can achieve it. Want to become a more intimidating presence on the mound? “Act” more intimidating: imitate the body language of the pitchers you’d like to emulate, and follow their between-pitch routines and gestures; sound more positive and dominating (not ego-inflating and inauthentic) in your internal conversations.
Want to feel more like a seasoned exerciser, even though you’re just starting out? Act the part: follow the exercises of a veteran in the field, just modify the movements or weight appropriately; carry yourself with comfort, and produce the vocal utterances of somebody strong (that doesn’t necessarily mean cursing); and get a wardrobe suitable for an exerciser so you look the part, too.