Mar 5 | 10 min read
Author: Erica Walecka
When you think about counseling, I bet you don’t immediately think about your nervous system. It’s probably pretty low on your priority list of things to discuss with your provider, and yet, it’s such a central part of our functioning that it deserves some attention and care. This is part three of a 4 part series about how our nervous system can hijack our mental health and what we can do to help.
Disclaimer: I am a mental health counselor, not a biologist, medical doctor or neurologist — my understanding of nervous systems comes from this perspective and knowledge, this is mental health/emotional health advice, not medical!
In Part One, we talked about how our autonomic nervous system runs largely outside of our control. Last week, we explored how fight, flight and freeze may show up in our day to day to make more sense of how the nervous system functions. Today we’re going to talk about the short periods of time that we can influence how our nervous system functions by doing something called regulating. Regulation is what happens when we are able to be within our window of tolerance. Regulating, then, are the things we do to bring ourselves back into that window when we’ve been kicked out.
Because we aren’t primitive animals, we have our upstairs brain, the part of our brain that can self-reflect, observe and make wise responses to the situations around us. When our downstairs brain kicks into high-gear, energy gets diverted away from the upstairs brain (hence why when you’re completely overwhelmed and flooded with anger, fear or sadness, being articulate and clear seems to be close to impossible). When we can help our upstairs brain come back online, we can support our nervous systems in returning to our window of tolerance where we can then make those wise decisions on how to respond to the situation in front of us. The visual image of the window of tolerance can come in handy here if you think about energy. It takes a lot of energy to fight something and a lot of energy to run away.
So if we are experiencing a fight or flight response and want to return to our window, we need to utilize skills that bring our energy back down:
- Splash cold water on your face or use ice on the insides of your wrists or behind your earlobes
- Deep breaths. Sometimes a big intentional yawn can help.
- Use essential oils, candles or other things with a pleasing, calming scent; breathe deeply
- Place both feet on the ground, wiggle your toes, really feel your feet on the ground – draw as much attention and energy down through your feet
- Step outside. Feel the weather, maybe even touch the ground with bare feet.
Alternatively, if you’re in a frozen state, you’ll have low energy and skills that bring your energy up are best suited:
- Pull, push or throw something, ideally with some resistance (choose things that aren’t going to cause any damage to self, others or property). Pulling a strap or rope, pushing a wall (see next point), or throwing small soft objects generate energy
- Find a sturdy wall. Place both hands on the wall and gently begin to lean/push into the wall.
- Any short movements that increase heart rate, even just swinging your arms
- Sit on an exercise ball
- Jump on a trampoline or do some “silly” movements with your children or upbeat music
- Use essential oils, candles or other things with a pleasing, invigorating scent
There are a myriad of different skills you may be able to use that feel right for you. A good trick is to remember that this is about your nervous system — your nerves — your five senses. Your five senses are what connect you to the world around us, so use them to your advantage. Need more energy? What can you see, touch, listen to, smell or taste that would bring some heat/energy into your body? If you need less energy, what can you see, touch, listen to, smell or taste that would bring coolness and calmness into your body?
To help these regulation skills become instinctual, we have to start using them as often as possible when we’re inside our window of tolerance, otherwise we’ll never use them when we’re outside it. The beauty of this is that the more we practice regulation skills, the more comfortable we become at the edges of our window of tolerance. And the more comfortable we become at the edges, the wider the window will become. The wider the window becomes, the more capable we’ll feel facing the challenges of our lives before becoming flooded by a fight/flight/freeze response.
When we work in partnership with the incredible systems within us, our mental and emotional well-being can improve. While these skills may seem simple, it may be incredibly difficult to put them into practice. Oftentimes, finding safe places with another person who can help us regulate (called co-regulating), can have a powerful and profound impact on us. This is where counselors and coaches can come in to support you. If you’ve read any of these posts the last 3 weeks and want some help regulating and widening your window of tolerance, if you’re seeing yourself in a fight/flight or freeze response and don’t know what to do to find your center again, give us a call – we’d love to come alongside you and support you, and your nervous system through therapy!