If you have spent more than five minutes with me over the last few years, you have heard me refer to things, most things, as 'regulated' or 'dysregulated'. Often. Probably too much. When I talk about regulation I am referring to the state of the human nervous system. Personally, learning about nervous systems in this way has been a valuable, validating, freeing, and confirming thing. So, I share it with you.
My understanding of the nervous system comes from several of my teachers and the root of their theories comes from the work of Stephen Porges and his Polyvagal Theory along with Daniel Seigel and his Window of Tolerance. If you Google around you will find many summaries of these ideas and how they explain our way of experiencing the world. Here is my attempt to become one of the people on the interweb bringing Porges' theory onto the family dinner table. With my own spin on it, of course.
This spectrum of regulation and dysregulation is how I view the world and most certainly how I view the challenges of the people I sit with when I work. Seeing challenges as states of regulation or dysregulation takes things like rage, anxiety, fear, depression, emotional disconnection, and hyperactivity (big, hard things!) and allows us to see them as the body’s beautiful, natural response to stress and overwhelm. Our nervous systems are made to dysregulate and we all do it every day, likely many times over. Healthy nervous systems pulse; regulation to a little dysregulation to regulation for a while then really dsyregulated (freak out!) back to regulation. Things that can feel like a life sentence (like anxiety, or explosive anger patterns, or depression) can be addressed when we create space for the nervous system to come into a state of regulation more often. It's not always easy. But, it is completely possible. Difficult emotional patterns are not a torturous life sentence. Let me explain.
Regulation is the nervous system state governed by the vagus nerve. When regulated, we are connected to the present moment, feel like we are grounded inside our body, at ease and poised. Being regulated is not necessarily calm, a person can feel big emotions and big stress when regulated but they feel those things while remaining connected to themselves. They can feel big feelings and stay grounded. A person who is regulated makes good eye contact, is available for emotional connection, makes conscious choices, and can withstand change and stress that arises. They are flexible and can tolerate emotions.
When the nervous system dysregulates it goes to one of two places. It goes up to hyperarousal or doooownn to hypoarousal.
Hyperarousal is the state we experience when our sympathetic nervous system is activated. This is the fight, flight, freeze response you’ve probably heard about. In this state you might experience an increased heart beat, rapid breathing, muscles tense, and there are changes to our hearing and eyesight as they are poised to scan for potential threats in the environment. Our biology is equipped with this necessary system that helps us identify threats (like saber tooth tigers) so that we can react in a timely way to keep ourselves safe (and alive!).
On the other end of the nervous system spectrum is Hypoarousal. It is governed by the dorsal vagal nerve. It is referred to as a collapse response and can feel like checking out, lethargy, depression, lack of emotion, and at the extreme, actual physical collapsing like fainting. People in a state of hypo-arousal have low motivation, very little facial expression, and are not available for emotional connection.
Of course, hyperarousal and hypoarousal can look very different in different people. Not all of the suggested signs or symptoms are always experienced and there are more ways that a person could feel these dysregulated states. There is also the fact that people may experience both hyperarousal and hypoarousal, swinging back and forth, and sometimes even at the same time (but that is the advanced blog entry). Our nervous systems do tend to favour one state over another when we get stressed and so for simplicity we will keep with that.
This day and age are peculiar times for our human bodies. We moved from the caveman era and running from threatening sabre tooth things, to the new millennium but the nervous systems inside our bodies remained the same. There are plenty of things in our day to day life to be afraid of (just watch the news for a minute), things that elevate our stress on an ongoing basis like difficult jobs, financial stress, and challenging relationships. Beyond the ongoing day to day stress of being alive in this complicated world, there is also the high likelihood of a person experiencing intense, overwhelming, traumatizing incidents. Shock trauma may occur such as a car accident, a difficult medical procedure, witnessing violence, or experiencing abuse or violence. This world is hard.
*pause* Typing this I am noticing my breath becoming shallow and my body tensing up. Is this hard to read too? Let’s take a deep breath, into the belly, and a loooooonnnggg exhale. Feel the chair or ground underneath you. What are you resting on? Feel your feet.
This world is hard but it is also incredibly beautiful.
Ok. Regulation break done. Let’s carry on. (But, take a deep breath whenever you need one).
Some (or, many!) people live their day to day life in an elevated, hyperaroused state. The body remains in a fight or flight response. All. day. long. And, that has an impact on the body and physical system. A hyperaroused nervous system state can feel like anxiety, panic, hyperactivity, fear, rage, rigidity, an inability to tolerate feelings, fast thoughts, fast talking, heck, even fast driving. Someone that lives much of their life in hyperarousal likely has an elevated startle response, likely can’t sleep well, and may have a lot of health challenges (like digestion and elimination stuff). Having a consistently hyperaroused system can, in fact, start to support itself. The system is overly-sensitized to threats and the body is on guard making things that likely do not pose any threat to feel like they are threatening which supports the intense cycle. Awful. It feels awful and it is exhausting.
Others may live much of their lives in a hypoaroused state. Life and all the things in life just feel like too much for a person prone to a collapsed nervous system, so they spend their time disconnected and laying down. Perhaps it is called depression, low motivation, fatigue, and/or emotional absence.
Now, we all have a window of tolerance. It’s the space within us where the nervous system can rest and find regulation. The tricky thing is that everyone has a different width of window which means that different people can tolerate different levels of stress or activation before they hit the perimeter and get bumped out of regulation into a dysregulated state (hyper or hypo). The width of the window is created by early life experiences and relationships and then further affected by any experiences of trauma that are not processed through the system into a state of resolution. It’s totally possible to have some early developmental or relational trauma, or some significant overwhelming events that were traumatizing, and not have a decreased ability to find regulation IF there was opportunity to process and repair the effects on the nervous system. If, like most humans that I’ve met, things happened and they were not able to be fully healed or resolved, it can increase how easily the nervous system is dysregulated. It sort of builds up around the edges and narrows the width of the window so less stress, life pressure, or emotions can fit in the window and less can be tolerated. More of life is spent anxious, or angry, or fearful, or depressed.
Also, it must be noted, that most of the things that cause the window to be smaller are often beyond thought. In the unconscious. Aka, stored in the right hemisphere of the brain. Meaning, that tough stuff from the past can be the motivation behind behaviour, emotions, choices and responses even though we are not fully aware of what it is, that it even happened, and how it is affecting us. Confusing, I know.
And, I am describing what regulation and dysregulation look like in adults. But, it happens in a very similar way with our children. They have the same system and the same responses. The extra magical thing is that our nervous systems actually communicate with each other. They have non-verbal conversations when we are in the proximity of another human. Have you ever been having a happy old time puttering in the kitchen and then a family member in a rotten, escalated, or angry mood comes in the door. Do you notice your mood change? Sensations in your body that feel uncomfortable and weren’t there previously? The strongest nervous system state is going to dominate in the situation. In this case, Grumpy Pants that arrived home has a more elevated, intense, hyperaroused state and so it takes over the sweet, regulated one doing the dishes. But, if the nervous system that was happily puttering in the kitchen was keenly aware of wanting to stay regulated and planted her feet firmly on the floor …. she could have overtaken the hyperarousal and brought Grumpy into a more regulated state.
(Note: the names and details in the previous example have been altered to protect the privacy of my family member when he walks into the kitchen after work as I am happily doing the dishes.)
All of this information is leading up to the simple, powerful truth that I really want to share: your nervous system state affects your child’s nervous system state. They can feel it. I promise you that if your child has challenging behaviour they have some dysregulation in their nervous system that they don’t know what to do with. So, they are oppositional, or aggressive, or lethargic, or tantruming or (insert challenging, intolerable behaviour here). If we can get together and learn regulation you can positively impact your child’s behaviour in a way that is just not possible without nervous system awareness. And, it will affect your child’s ability to regulate themselves. Then you’ll be regulated, they’ll be regulated and we can all happily putter around the kitchen together (even Grumpy Pants).
Does this make sense? If not, call me. I do one to one sessions and group presentations for parents to explain this and other things that I hope are helpful.