Anxiety’s Hidden Element: Bracing

Greater Philadelphia, PA Psychiatrist Jerrold Bonn, M.D.

Have you ever come close to being in a car accident? Can you recall how your body felt in the instant when someone almost hit you in the stomach? Do you remember how your body feels when you are about to have blood drawn? How does your body feel as you are about to have a root canal? How does your body feel when you are rushing for an important appointment, knowing you will let others down, and maybe suffer a reprimand?

Whenever we feel threatened, physically or socially, the human body automatically acts to protect and shield itself from attack through the action of bracing. Sometimes we notice our defensive body tightness and sometimes we do not. Bracing is probably a physical survival reflex long ago wired into us as a species, and bracing ourselves in times of perceived threat is an automatic response in us even at infancy. Have you ever seen an infant brace its entire little body when there is a sudden and frighteningly loud noise like thunder?

Bracing, the tightening of our body muscles to automatically shield us, is an important but under-appreciated part of feeling a threat or apprehension. We almost never hear people speak about it, and we are likely to be unaware of it when it is present. People who suffer from anxiety and a sense of threat or vulnerability in everday events (the threats may not be real, but the feeling is real), would do well to consider that their automatic body bracing may be adding a great deal to the total feeling of anxiety. Our worry can be multiplied by tight feelings from our defensively guarded, braced muscles. We worry, we tighten and we worry still more. Although we do not understand that it is just our muscles trying to guard and shield us, the tightness makes the sense of danger feel more real and immediate.

Learning to understand and to reverse the tight feelings in our body, especially in the torso, upper body, neck and shoulders, can help us with mental suffering such as:

  1. The distress of chronic and situational anxiety
  2. The terror of panic attacks
  3. The mind-body trap of hypochondriacal suffering. (We can fall into the trap of thinking that we must be ill because our body really hurts, even after our physician has concluded that we have no physical disease. We can easily believe that we must be damaging our body parts because they are sore when we move them.  It is hard for us to accept that soreness may the result of our keeping them guarded and braced out of fear of self injury and that the soreness we feel may normal in any part of the body that has been kept tight and immobile.)

When we command our muscles to move gently in a slow and flowing way, they gradually stretch out and dissipate their tightness and bracing and even their soreness. Relaxation breathing means using extra big breaths to expand our tight abdomen as if we were allowing an inner balloon of air to gently stretch out our tight muscles in the area underneath our ‘six-packs’ and our diaphragm. Gently moving any part of the body that is sore or tight may be beneficial. Discuss this issue with your doctor and then decide.

I hope this is of help.

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Jerrold Bonn M.D.
Psychiatrist &Talk Therapist
Greater Philadelphia 

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