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“I’m so dysregulated. What can I do?” (Part One)

"I'm so dysregulated. What can I do?" (Part One) | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

“I lost my sh*t on him again! In front of the kids. I’m failing as a mother and I’m sure he’s going to divorce me.”

“I can’t seem to stay calm anytime I meet with my boss. My heart starts pounding and I get clammy and spacey.”

“I start everyday thinking I’ll deal with the stressors in a more healthy way and by the time the evening comes, I’m craving reaching for a White Claw to take the edge off.”

"I'm so dysregulated. What can I do?" (Part One) | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

“I’m so dysregulated. What can I do?” (Part One)

“I feel so overwhelmed that all I want to do on the weekend is get into bed and just stare at Netflix and eat freezer meals. I have no energy. No will. No motivation.”

“Do other people feel this bad? Does everyone else feel like each day is a rollercoaster they can’t get off of?”

To this last question – when asked some iteration of it by a therapy client or online course student – I say: it depends.

Life, in general, for most of us does feel like a rollercoaster of stretches of feeling calm, grounded and in control and then plunging down or climbing up stretches of irritation or overwhelm. 

To a certain extent, I personally think that’s just life and feeling your feelings as you move through the world.

But, on the other hand, for those of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds, the proverbial rollercoaster ride of emotions may feel more intense; the plunges and climbs more pronounced, more frequent, and more unsettling.

In other words, we may have a harder time practicing self-regulation – a fundamental skill to coping with the proverbial rollercoaster of life in a better way.

We may struggle with this because we were not supported in developing these skills early on and/or our own unprocessed trauma may still be at play in our nervous systems.

Whatever the reason, learning (or re-learning) how to self-regulate is a fundamental biopsychosocial skill of relational trauma recovery and, in this two-part essay series (in today’s article and in the one coming out in two weeks), we’re going to explore two practical, implementable tools you can use to develop the skill of self-regulation and, proverbially speaking, ease your rollercoaster ride a little more.

Today, we’ll be exploring what self-regulation is, what the Window of Tolerance is, what the “Healthy Mind Platter” is, and why it’s important for self-regulation, and then lead you through some prompts to create your own “platter.”

What Is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation is the ability to control your energy, feelings, ideas, and actions well. 

It helps us deal with problems and is important for our well-being, relationships with others, and learning. 

To develop self-regulation, we need to be aware of ourselves, understand our emotions, handle most things around us without stress, get along with other people well, and stay focused. 

But how do we know if we’re self-regulated? 

We’re inside our Window of Tolerance, and our psychology and physiology have the hallmarks of the Window of Tolerance.

What Is The Window of Tolerance?

The Window of Tolerance is a term and concept coined by the esteemed psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, MD – clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute – that describes the optimal emotional “zone” our brains can exist in, to function best and thrive in everyday life. 

On either side of the “optimal zone,” there are two other zones – the hyper-arousal zone and the hypo-arousal zone, each characterized by its own attributes. 

The Optimal Arousal Zone.

The optimal zone – is characterized by a sense of groundedness, flexibility, openness, curiosity, presence, an ability to be emotionally regulated, and a capacity to tolerate life’s stressors. 

It feels good, we feel good, and we feel more equipped to “adult and human.” 

However, if this Window of Tolerance is eclipsed, if you experience internal or external stressors that cause you to move beyond and outside of your Window of Tolerance, you may find yourself existing in either a hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused state.

The Hyperarousal Zone.

Hyperarousal is an emotional state characterized by high energy, anger, panic, irritability, anxiety, hypervigilance, overwhelm, chaos, fight or flight instincts, and startle response (to name but a few characteristics).

Being in a hyperaroused state can cause us to react impulsively and with increased aggression or fear. 

This state often leads to reduced rational thinking and difficulty in processing information calmly.

Additionally, when we’re in a hyperaroused state, we may find it challenging to focus on tasks, as our heightened alertness can make us easily distracted and overwhelmed.

(And full disclosure, this is where I’m most prone to going if outside the optimal arousal zone; I know this landscape well.)

The Hypoarousal Zone.

By contrast, the hypoarousal zone is an emotional state characterized by shutting down, numbness, depressiveness, withdrawal, shame, flat affect, and disconnection (to name but a few characteristics).

Being in a hypoaroused state typically involves a noticeable decrease in physiological and mental activity. 

Someone in this state may display signs such as slowed movements, reduced muscle tone, and a lack of responsiveness to their environment. 

Their heart rate and breathing may become slow and shallow, and they might have a vacant or distant expression. 

Mentally, individuals in a hypoaroused state may appear lethargic, disengaged, and have difficulty concentrating or staying alert. 

This state can often be associated with feelings of fatigue, depression, or even dissociation from reality.

So clearly, the ideal is to exist in the optimal arousal zone versus being hyper- or hypoaroused. But how do we do this?

How Do We Stay In The Optimal Arousal Zone More?

How do we stay in the optimal arousal zone and increase our window of tolerance? 

Look, this is ideally where we want to be. 

But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that all of us – at every age from the moment we’re born to the moment we die – eclipse our Window of Tolerance and find ourselves in a non-ideal emotional regulation zone sometimes. 

That’s normal, and that’s natural.  

So the goal here is not that we never eclipse our Window of Tolerance – I personally and professionally think that that’s unrealistic.  

Rather, the goal is to increase our Window of Tolerance and to grow our capacity to “rebound and be resilient” — coming back to the Window of Tolerance quickly and effectively when we find ourselves outside of it. 

So again, how do we increase our Window of Tolerance? 

In my personal and professional experience, this work is two-fold: 

First, we provide ourselves with the foundational biopsychosocial elements that contribute to a healthy, regulated nervous system. This is what we’ll explore next in this essay.

And two, we work to cultivate and call upon a wide toolbox of tools when we find ourselves outside of our Window of Tolerance (which, again, is inevitable). We’ll explore this more in two weeks.

For now, let’s explore a concept to help you create a solid foundation of biopsychosocial elements to help equip you to be in the optimal arousal zone more.

The First Step: Cultivate Your “Healthy Mind Platter.”

Derived from Dr. Dan Siegel’s work and concept of Healthy Mind Platter, this first step in creating a greater window of tolerance focuses on the psychological and physiological foundations many of us would suspect lead to a healthy life. 

I don’t think any of the foundational efforts will surprise you, but as Dr. Dan Siegel describes them, they are, in summary with my own examples provided:  

1) Focus Time: Engaging in challenges that foster new neural connections. For example: Learning a musical instrument, solving puzzles, playing chess or strategy games, working on your fiction book or screenplay, learning a new language, planning the millions of details for your next international trip.

2) Play Time: Deriving pleasure from novel experiences to forge fresh neural connections in the brain. For example: Learning a new skill or hobby, joining a community sports league, attending workshops or seminars on diverse topics, volunteering for a cause or organization, taking up house, gardening or landscaping projects, and getting together with your friends in new cities for adventures.

3) Connecting Time: Activating and reinforcing the brain’s relational circuitry by connecting with others and appreciating the natural world. For example: Arranging playdates for your kids in city parks, becoming part of a local parenting support network, getting involved in community gardening projects, attending neighborhood block parties or social events, volunteering for school or community functions, exploring family-friendly experiences where you live such as visiting botanical gardens or nearby urban nature reserves.

4) Physical Time: Enhancing brain function through physical activity and movement. For example: Peloton bike rides, jogs around the neighborhood, walks with a good friend, danging to Spotify in the kitchen, chasing your kids around, a bike ride through your city.

5) Time In: Fostering brain integration through self-reflection. For example: Journaling, meditation, mindfulness, contemplation, deep breathing, and solitude.

6) Downtime: Revitalizing the mind through leisurely focus or relaxation. For example: daydreaming, listening to an audiobook while staring at the wall, putting on your favorite album and just sitting on the couch, standing in the shower, and staring at the wall.

7) Sleep Time: Synthesizing knowledge and recuperating from daily encounters. No examples are needed.

What Does Your Healthy Mind Platter Look Like?

Now, speaking as a working parent, I know firsthand how hard it is to have time even to shower some days, let alone carve out time for all of these things, so let’s remember: a healthy mind platter that checks off all seven criterion is the ideal and something we aim for, not necessarily what’s realistic every day for most of us.

But still, let’s take a minute and have you design what a Healthy Mind Platter could look like for you. If you need any inspiration, review the examples earlier in the post:

  • What does focus time personally and ideally look like for you?
  • What does your adult version of playtime ideally look like for you?
  • What does connecting time look like for you socially and with nature and spirit?
  • What does your ideal physical time look like?
  • What does time in mean for you and how can you build in internal reflection time?
  • What even small slivers of ideal downtime might be available to you regularly?
  • How can you better protect your sleep time to consolidate learning and recovery more?

Again, building a “Healthy Mind Platter” helps increase our ability to stay in the Window of Tolerance more easily. 

It’s the bedrock foundation of our daily living that can support our self-regulation abilities.

Take some time to journal about your answers to the above-listed questions and then, in two weeks’ time, I’ll share the second tool to increase your emotional regulation skills: building your hyperarousal and hypoarousal toolboxes.

And now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:

What goes into YOUR “Healthy Mind Platter”?

If you feel so inclined, please leave a message in the comments. This blog, this little corner of the internet, receives about 30,000 visitors each month, and our blog comments have become a kind of community where folks with similar paths and journeys find each other, learn from each other, and take hope and inspiration from each other’s shares. So, if you feel so inclined, please feel free to leave a comment and share your wisdom and experiences. You never know who you’ll help when you write.

And one more thing: If you are actually actively looking for a therapist to support you with your emotional regulation and if you live in California or Florida, please reach out to me and my team at the boutique, trauma-focused therapy center I founded. 

We’re taking on new clients and would truly love to be of support to you on your relational trauma recovery journey.

Until next time, please take care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

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  1. Noemi says

    Dear Annie, no matter how far along I feel in my healing journey, your letters always add something valuable to my awareness and my choices! Thank you for this! As I contemplate these questions I realize that some of these items on the platter could be dysregulating depending on my approach and attitude to them. Or they could end up taking me to avoidance behaviors. My window of tolerance for some of these activities is still narrow, but growing! So I have to approach these with intention and boundaries and understanding, while also not giving up. Starting small and safe and adding options as the window expands. Perhaps you can address this in the next letter about tools, including knowing when one has enough of an activity. Much gratitude to you!

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