Anxiety brings with it a myriad of negative symptoms, including constriction. What I mean by constriction is the impulse to stay small, to close up, to protect oneself, to back away from life itself.
Think of a time when your life or well-being was in danger – perhaps you were about to experience a car crash, or be struck by something or someone. What was your innate reaction? Likely you tensed up, folded into a protective position, or otherwise constricted yourself. These are all instinctual reactions that happen faster than the mind can even process what’s going on. They are essential reactions – arising from a built-in, biological self-preservation instinct.
The self preservation instinct can become permanently switched on if we are living in a constant state of threat response from unhealed trauma. Constriction can become a habitual reaction to even non life-threatening circumstances.
Do you ever feel like your world has become very small?
Are you avoiding people or places out of fear?
Do you find yourself reacting to life events with black and white thinking? In other words….. stuck between a rock and a hard place? I often see people stuck in this mode of constriction, where they only see 2 options – each the extreme opposite of the other.
“If I quit my job, I’ll have to move in with my parents or end up on the street. I don’t see any jobs out there that will pay me this well. I guess I have to stay in this job and suffer.”
“I can’t tolerate him anymore! Either I need to get out, or he has to go!”
Physical constriction shows up in tired, sore, aching muscles, stiff joints and tendons. It can also present as tightness or a sense of weight on your chest, or a slumped posture.
Living in a constant state of threat response also causes us to literally stop breathing. Have you ever caught yourself in a big sigh, or gasping for air? That’s because you’ve been holding your breath, or taking only shallow breaths. It’s your spirit saying “I don’t want to be here anymore. Living like this is too hard. Let me out!”. Spirit rides on our breath. If we don’t want to be in our body anymore because it doesn’t feel safe, we stop breathing properly.
Disordered breathing, or shallow breathing is common in people with anxiety. It causes a build up of CO2 in the blood, which leads to fatigue, headaches and depression. Shallow breathing also causes an increase in lactic acid in the muscles, which then exacerbates anxiety (Korn, 2016). It is a downward spiral!
Simply changing your breathing can break the cycle of anxiety and constriction.
Stay Open and Breathe
Taking a few deep, full breaths is saying “I want to be here. I choose life.” In that instant, our whole nervous system calms down, our heart slows down, and our body stops releasing stress hormones. It sends a signal to our primitive animal brain that “all is well”, and then the rest of our brain comes back online. We come fully into our body once again, and connect to our intuition, 2nd brain (‘gut brain’) and creativity.
Suddenly, we become aware of all the other possible choices that lie between those extreme black and white options.
In choosing to stay open to life, you become intensely present to what is going on. Look and listen. Feel into the situation. What do you really need right now? What does the other person really need right now?
Choosing to stay open takes courage and practice. You may not always succeed, and that’s okay. The more you practice, the easier it gets because your body/brain will learn and remember this new pattern.
Next time you find yourself shrinking away from a situation, wishing you were anywhere or anyone else, take a few deep breaths. Invite in the whole situation, invite in the energy of whatever is going on. Then move out of your head and into your heart and just take a few moments to really feel into the situation. You might be surprised by the potential solutions that present themselves!