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Right Now, We’re All Dysregulated

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Are you an ON person or an OFF person? Yoga teacher and somatic counselor Hala Khouri shares ideas for moving toward self-regulation.

Even if this year is ushering in change in the right direction, the residue of last year’s stress can contribute to burnout, erratic and unpredictable emotions, or just feeling numb. Carrying unmetabolized stress around as we are facing life’s new stressors is like carrying a bag of rocks up a mountain—it makes an already challenging journey even harder.

We need stress in order to grow and thrive. Challenges that we can overcome can be a source of learning and growth. We might even enjoy the journey up the mountain, take in the views, and get stronger as a result—if we’re not lugging around that bag of rocks.

If we don’t release the energy of past stress and trauma from the nervous system, we become dysregulated— anxious, overwhelmed, depressed, or shut down. Our responses can be out of proportion to the event. We can find ourselves overreacting or underreacting to situations. This can then create more stress for us.

Carrying the pain from the past is not helpful; carrying the wisdom gleaned from that pain, however, is.

In comparison, when we are self-regulated, we are grounded, centered, and in present time. We are able to deal with life’s challenges, ask for support when we need it, and have a sense that even if things are hard, we can cope. When we are self-regulated, we respond appropriately to external stimuli, mobilizing to take action when needed and settling and remaining relaxed when appropriate.

In comparison, when we are self-regulated, we are grounded, centered, and in present time.

No one was spared the fear and anxiety that a global pandemic brings. That makes it more important than ever to work towards self-regulation.

Here is an example from my own life:

Last month my husband sneezed into his hand rather than his elbow and then continued working on

his computer. Before I knew it, I was giving him an overly aggressive speech about hygiene and the implications of his actions during these times. In my body it felt like his behavior was going to immediately kill someone. And my tone reflected my feeling that in that moment he was a murderer.

This one action tapped into a well of emotion for me, and an overwhelming sense of being out of control. In my head I knew that although he definitely needs to be aware of his behavior, at that time none of us had any concerns about having been exposed to COVID. There was no rational reason for me to get so upset. But I tapped into some of the unexpressed and pent-up stress of the past year and my sympathetic response took over. It was not a productive response, to say the least. It left him feeling irritable and me feeling guilty.

There are two general categories of how an overburdened nervous system reacts, although everyone is unique and some people are prone to both.

ON people can get stuck in an excitatory response—we can look anxious, hypervigilant, easily startled, etc. We feel like there’s too much energy in our nervous system to manage. (I’m an ON person. That’s why I reacted how I did when my husband sneezed.)

OFF people get stuck in a shutdown response. They will look depressed, tired, confused, or dissociated when they’re stressed. They underreact to situations.

Take a moment to reflect on how you feel and behave when you’re stressed. Does your heart rate rise, do you feel scared or anxious, do you feel like you have to do something and keep moving? You may be an ON person. Conversely, do you feel like sleeping or shutting down when you’re stressed? Maybe you don’t feel anything at all, or things just feel numb and floaty. If so, you may be an OFF person.

If you’re not sure, try to build the habit of noticing your sensations and your impulses throughout your day. They will give you some insight into how your particular nervous system operates. You might also think about how those around you deal with high stress.

The next step towards feeling self-regulated is finding some resources to support you when uncomfortable feelings or sensations arise. A resource is anything that feels solid, supportive, or good. Internal resources are tools like grounding, breathing, rocking, and centering. External resources are things like a supportive person, nature, a special object or smell, or even a sound. Anything can be a resource if it gives you the support to be with what is uncomfortable.

When we get resourced, we will more likely feel that we can cope with what is present rather than impulsively say or do something to avoid the feeling. We can be responsive rather than reactive, and our behavior is less likely to be out of proportion to the event at hand.

Next time you feel anxious, try planting your feet on the ground or feeling your bum in your chair. Focus on the parts of your body that feel solid. You can also deepen your breath. You might find something in your surroundings that is pleasant to look at. Find what works for you and settles you. This can move you out of a sympathetic response into a parasympathetic one in seconds. (When we’re stressed or in danger, the sympathetic branch of the nervous system mobilizes us to deal with the threat. The parasympathetic branch settles us when we’re safe, so we can relax and recharge.)

Let’s revisit the scenario with the sneezing husband. This time, I might notice that my heart rate goes up and my jaw tightens when he sneezes. I may feel the impulse to yell at him. Then I press my feet into the ground and it settles me just a bit. I notice that I feel afraid and I’m remembering how vigilant we’ve had to be about germs. I notice that I want to make him feel bad because I don’t like the feelings I’m confronting. Snapping at him could give me some momentary relief from this discomfort. I take a few breaths and I begin to settle.

Then I gently say to him, “Hey, please watch out for sneezing into your hand. Remember, we’re supposed to use our elbow.”

The simple act of finding a resource can slow things down so that we are able to notice what is going on for us. Just the noticing can help us settle so that we can respond to the situation in a way that feels appropriate for us and is ultimately effective and productive. Each time we do this, we create new neural and somatic patterns that help us let go of past stressors and be present. This can help prevent burnout and tension in our relationships.

Staying resourced so we can be present with what is arising allows us to feel and then release stress from the past and face the present in a more grounded and empowered way.