We’ve spoken a little bit about the dome of the diaphragm this week, and this particular part of the body is a great launch pad to discuss something that us humans do that causes us quite a lot of challenge at various points along the way- especially when it comes to our interpretations and experiences of fear and anxiety.
Before we get into that though, let’s consider where it is that most of us physically experience the sensation of anxiety. If we took a general survey, there are some common threads that we can identify that lead people to believe they are amid an anxious episode. They are:
- Tight chest
- Racing heart
- Lump in the throat
- Butterflies or fluttering
- Upset “stomach” or nausea
If you look at all of these, they are centered on the torso/chest area. This is also where all the organs are housed in the body.
From a physiological perspective, we are supposed to be getting feedback from the body all the time. Nothing in the body is static, including the organs. They move and shift around, creating physical sensations as they do so.
They move in accordance with how the nervous system is responding to the environment. In the sympathetic, or survival nervous system, they move and condense towards midline. In the parasympathetic system, they move out and expand in all directions; one is a closing sensation, the other an opening.
Regardless of whether the body is opening or closing, sensation will be experienced. The only way to interpret what is happening is to learn to read the structure of your body to understand which direction it is moving in.
But instead, what many of us have done is attach subjective interpretations to our physical experience- for example this tightness in my chest, this lump in my throat, this shallow breath- to mean something. And running with the example of anxiety, we take these sensations to mean that we are anxious.
Now back to the diaphragm. In the parasympathetic system, the dome of the diaphragm moves up towards the base of the armpit. The dome of the diaphragm is also where the bottom of the heart and lungs rest, so consequently, they move up also. The resulting physical experience is an increase “fullness” in the chest (these are big organs that increase the internal pressure systems), a lump in the throat (the top tip of the lungs sits just under the thyroid), and the experience of a shorter breath (air doesn’t have as far to go, the lungs have more tone so these big deep breaths we are so attached to are not required).
If we have attached the label of anxiety to these sensations we actually interrupt the movement of the body in a more healthful direction. We essentially “map” the sensation into the brain and instead move it into a sympathetic response NOT because of the physical reality but because of our mental interpretations of what’s happening- which is entirely subjective and, in most cases, inaccurate.
Decoupling our interpretations from the reality of our physical experience is a big part of my work, and a game changer when it comes to being able move through the world in a body that’s vibrant and alive; where we aren’t consistently interpreting physical experience and sensation as dangerous.