Learning self-regulation is expanding the ability for staying present with difficult emotions in the body, including their accompanying physical sensations. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry, coined the term Window of Tolerance in 1999. The concept refers to our ability to function effectively in everyday life. Some events can push us outside of our tolerance range, which can result in our nervous systems becoming more activated as the body responds to a perceived, or real, threat.
The Nervous System
The autonomic branch of the nervous system is involuntary, and cycles between sympathetic and parasympathetic states. The sympathetic state is what gets activated whenever we do any actions, such as getting up or going for a run. The parasympathetic state gets activated when we are resting – it is often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ mode. It is normal for both states to be present in us. However, when the body detects any kind of threat, the sympathetic branch can step up its response by moving us into a ‘fight / flight’ response. Similarly, the parasympathetic can send us into ‘freeze’ when the body perceives that the threat is too great to fight off or get away from. A healthy nervous system will quickly recover once the threat has passed.
Difficulties arise when these natural and useful defence mechanisms start kicking in over everyday things: an email from your boss, an argument with your spouse or being late to an appointment. When this happens frequently, the nervous system can become dysregulated. Some common reasons why this happens are stress, problems at work or in a relationship, trauma, or lack of regular restorative sleep. This can lead to everyday stressors sending us into either overwhelm, shutdown, or cycling between the two on a regular basis. Our ability to self-regulate becomes low, as we are thrown from one involuntary response to the next.
One of the great things about somatic therapy is that by working directly with the body, we can learn to better regulate our nervous systems. This means increasing our ability to deal with stress and being less reactive. In turn, this can help us to stay connected to ourselves and what is true for us, and have a better chance of communicating in a way that will increase our chances of being heard.
Tips For Learning Self-Regulation:
1. TAKE DEEP BREATHS. Breathing is a unique function in the body because it can be done completely involuntarily, or, we can take conscious control of it. The way we breathe can impact on how the nervous system interprets those signals. Fast, shallow breathing can signal danger. Slow, deep breathing is more indicative of the parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ state. Just slowing down the breath can help us to reduce or come out of a fight of flight response. Please note, for some people, trying to deepen and slow the breath can activate the stress response – so if this happens, try one of the other tips below, and come back to this one later on.
2. LEARN TO GROUND YOURSELF. This means becoming aware of what is happening in the present moment, both outside and inside of us. It includes noticing what we can hear, smell, taste, see and feel on our skin, as well as any movements, sensations and feelings on the inside. Essentially this is the practice of mindfulness, and these principles are ancient. A note of caution – sometimes, bringing attention to internal sensations can be uncomfortable. If this is the case for you, start with the external ones, and gradually build up to developing internal awareness. Learning to sustain awareness is like building a muscle – it takes time and practice. Short and frequent is more likely to lead to long-term success than trying to force ourselves to ‘stay present’ for longer than we are able to.
“Grounded means that you can feel your butt in your chair, see the light coming through the window, feel the tension in your calves, and hear the wind stirring in the tree outside” [Bessel van der Kolk]
3. ACTIVATE THE NEO-CORTEX PART OF THE BRAIN. When we start to become overwhelmed by intense emotions – this particularly being the case for those suffering from trauma – changes happen in the functioning of the brain, and different neural networks are activated. Doing a simple exercise of naming the colours you can see in the room or outdoor setting you are in, or counting any objects around you can help to activate the ‘thinking’ parts of the brain and stop the escalation of the ‘emotional’ parts. Please note, although the concept and exercise is simple, remembering to do it when you are distressed is not! Therefore, it is a good idea to practice this during ‘non-emergency’ times, and to think of ways you can remember to do this as you start to get more activated.
4.BE MINDFUL OF WHAT YOU EAT AS FOOD AND DRINK CAN HAVE AN IMPACT ON MOOD AND ANXIETY LEVELS. An obvious example may be that drinking coffee or stimulating drinks can increase energy. For some people, this is also accompanied by physical sensations, such as a faster heartbeat, which in itself can cause anxiety as it stimulates the sympathetic branch of the nervous system. Please note, effects of food and drink are very individual – some people feel more calm after drinking a coffee or a red bull. Some common foods that can have an impact on mood include processed meats, cheese, fermented foods, bread and ready meals. It is a good idea to keep a food & mood diary for a few days, making a note of what you are eating and drinking, and how you are feeling, to identify any possible links – it can be fun to take on a role of being a detective!
5.LEARN AND PRACTICE TRE® (TENSION AND TRAUMA RELEASING EXERCISES). TRE® is an embodied practice that helps to activate the natural tremoring mechanism in the body. In turn, this helps to release any tension or trauma that is being held there. TRE® helps to down regulate the threat responses of the nervous system, bringing us back to a happier, calmer state, and increasing our window of tolerance for dealing with the stresses of everyday life. It is a ‘bottom up’ approach, meaning that it works directly with the body, rather than focusing on analysing what we are thinking or feeling – which is more of ‘top-down’ approach. Please note, one is not ‘better’ than another – both work well individually or together, and suit different people.
The above five tips are just a starting point and there are many more ways for learning self-regulating skills. I offer bodywork and TRE online and face to face sessions in London and Teesside to individuals and couples. For more information, please get in touch.