I Tried Rope Bondage as a Coping Mechanism for My Anxiety

It felt like yoga—a steady, reliable movement from discomfort to comfort and I was in control of the pace.

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10 April 2019, 12:10am

Tracey Duncan

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

“What’s the rope for?” I asked, flirting.

I was lying on my belly in my new boo’s bedroom, happy and sweaty from an intense yoga class and an equally intense post-yoga make-out sesh.

“Doesn’t everyone have rope on their nightstand?” She quipped.

Images in my brain flipped. Present, past, present.

In yoga that day, my teacher had bound my hips with straps and then tied the straps to my feet in a forearm stand. For years, I’ve lovingly called my teacher my femme dom and I’ve often joked about the similarities between Iyengar yoga and Shibari (Japanese rope bondage).

If you take away the neon spandex and a pristine studio and replace it with black lingerie and a whiff of BDSM, shibari rope bondage looks a lot like yoga. They’re both disciplines in which the body is strapped into seemingly impossible positions with ropes of some sort. There are weird physical contortions, inversions, and suspension. Real femme doms might respond to this comparison with major side eye, but to uninitiated folx like me, it feels similar.

I’ve always been a spiritual explorer, but not always a sexual one. Dating after decades of marriage expanded my kink awareness. Since my wife and I separated, there has been a near-constant flow of Tinder dates with assorted fetishes. I’ve mostly swiped left on a lot of people’s idea of play because seriously y’all, I can’t with your mommy fetish. (I’m not saying ew, I’m just saying I’ll pass, thank you.)

New boo was different, though. She was passionate about rope play and I had already swiped right. I was into exploring with her, especially if it involved something that looked like yoga to me. I didn’t know that what seemed kinky to me then was about to become part of my mental health care regimen.

I didn’t have time to play with new boo right away. It was the holidays and I had to go visit my family. New boo and I were having sexy text convos about her tying me up, but in real time I was watching cartoons with a hyperactive three-year-old. Family time really stresses me out and I usually cope with fatty foods, copious amounts of physical activity, and binge-watching something kinda lame. This time around, I found myself obsessively watching shibari videos instead of TV. Unlike the last season of American Horror Story, they were artful and seductive.

I should say that I have an anxiety disorder. I also manage clinical depression and have been diagnosed with OCD. These are old diagnoses and my primary care physician has encouraged me to seek an updated diagnosis from a psychiatrist. My therapist, a Buddhist social worker, disagrees with medicalization, though, and I’m mostly with her when it comes to my own mental health (though I know a lot of folks benefit from meds—no one should be stigmatized for the choices they make). I have chosen a partially medical approach. I take anti-anxiety meds (benzos), but not antidepressants or mood stabilizers.


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It’s easy for me to lapse into episodes that are dissociative and potentially manic and I’m prone to panic attacks. When I’m under stress, mental health has to be my top priority. On holiday, I had been running and yoga-ing and meditating every day to try to combat the stressors of family vacay. I took my anti-anxiety meds. I had a list of people to call in case I felt crazy or feared relapse. (I have a history of addiction to opioids and have to be careful.)

I also binged on rope bondage tutorials.

Shibari videos are beautiful and enticing and I needed a release valve. I wanted to start practicing on myself right away. Unfortunately, I didn’t have rope. Unlike new boo, my fam doesn’t keep a stockpile in every bedroom. I did have knitting yarn, though, and I figured that string was string and started tying.

The first time I tried it, I was alone in my bedroom playing symphonic metal loud enough to drown out the sounds of my drunk family fighting. I was halfway to a panic attack and I knew I had to get my brain and body back into the present moment. I wrapped yarn around each of my ankles and tied them together. At first, it was kind of frustrating. It looked so graceful and effortless in the videos, but my hands didn’t know what to do. I had to wrap and re-wrap the yarn to get it to lay just so.

Once my ankles were bound together, I leaned back and looked. Pretty. But I started to panic. The music was not quite loud enough for me to miss the raised voices beneath me or the tumult inside my brain. I felt trapped. I was trapped, in my family’s home and in my body. What if I couldn’t get out of the knots?

I breathed slowly and fully, the way I’ve taught myself to do when I’m anxious. I carefully backtracked. The yarn untangled. I could escape. What had been constrictive bondage fell away, yarn ends tickling my toes.

Once I realized that I could get out of the knots I had tied myself into, I got back to practicing. I fell into the rhythm of tying-untying, knotting-unknotting.

It felt like yoga—a steady, reliable movement from discomfort to comfort and I was in control of the pace. This tied up moment alone in my bedroom was the first moment I actually relaxed and felt safe with my family. I kept going.

I looped the ends of the yarn around my toes and leaned back on the plush, suburban carpet. The bonds were tight. I could only move my ankles so much without cutting off the circulation to my feet. The restriction—now that I knew I could get out of it—felt soothing. My whole nervous system quieted. I wrapped yarn around my calves and thighs and wove myself into a net. I wasn’t especially turned on. I’d thought that rope play would feel sexy to me, but it felt more like being held.

“People have the potential to heal themselves in creative ways,” Kevin Foose, a therapist and assistant professor of counseling at Loyola University New Orleans, tells me. “Anxiety is the body communicating that there is danger and something to be done about it. We don’t always know what the danger is, though, or what to do about it. Ideation can spin out of control.”

Foose’s explanation resonates with me. When I’m in a state of panic, my thoughts race and I feel like anything could happen to me. My imagination becomes explicitly violent. This experience is both physical and mental. My heart races right along with my thoughts. I have a set of tools I use to help me cope. I sit on the ground and breathe to downregulate my nervous system. I say, out loud, the things I feel with my senses to resituate myself back into the present.

And now I tie myself up. It helps.

Why does this work for me? The psychology professionals I spoke with had different, but complementary, opinions on why self-binding could be anxiety-soothing, both psychologically and physically.

“We have different nerve endings that respond to different kinds of touch,” says Stefani Goerlich, a Detroit-based therapist who focuses on sex and relationships as well as anxiety and depression. “Ropes can give the sensation of a hug. Self-tying can mimic a comfort strategy that goes back to babyhood. Swaddling, or squeezing, is how some of us are comforted.”

Foose agrees that there might be a physiological component, but is more invested in a symbolic interpretation of my behavior. “You are making explicit what is implicit,” he says, “You are literally binding and liberating yourself. Often, we get caught in patterns of familiarity that we seek to recreate so that we can get them right, situations in which we felt trapped and didn’t have power. You are allowing yourself to play the role of both the bound and the liberator.”

Yes. Yes. Yes. What Foose describes feels consistent with my experience. It goes like this: I methodically tie myself into submission, feel the literalness of the constraints, experiment with ways I can struggle, panic at the possibility that escape is impossible, force myself to relax into the discomfort of being powerless, and then free myself. I am captor, captive, and liberator. Getting to play all the roles is a creative act that feels both relaxing and empowering.

So, should everyone with anxiety start tying themselves up? Will it work for everyone?

Probably not, Foose says. He described my response to auto-Shibari as possibly idiosyncratic—specific to me, my anxieties, set of experiences, and responses to tactility. Still, he indicates that self-tying is a tool that he would like more people to know about. “You should run a workshop,” he tells me, “this might resonate with a lot of people as a viable strategy.”

So while the sense of being bound may feel like swaddle liberation to me, it may feel like being trapped to someone else. There is some evidence that rope bondage can have a soothing effect on the nervous system, but it may not work for everyone. In other words, you probably shouldn’t try this at home. Definitely not alone, particularly if you are inexperienced or have emotional stress. If you are going to try tying yourself or someone else up, take a class from a reputable teacher and get familiar with rope safety. New boo and I eventually experimented together with rope play and it turns out that I have both a new way to relieve anxiety and a new kink. Win-win.

It’s beautiful to be experimental with both your self healing and your sexual explorations. You may find that what you thought was a kink turns out to be therapeutic and vice versa. And maybe if we start letting down some of the shame around kink, we can start letting go of some of the shame around mental health issues, and begin dealing with both with a little more compassion and acceptance. They might go hand in hand.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.