Control of our lives requires control of our bodies.
Posted October 18, 2011
For most people, telling themselves to calm down in the face of a crisis only increases their level of distress. We all know that keeping ourselves calm will help us to think more clearly and deal more effectively with any type of crisis we confront. The process of keeping ourselves calm is called self-regulation. It is both art and science.
To be in control of our lives, we must be in control of our bodies. When we are stressed to the point where our nervous system is overwhelmed, our body becomes disregulated. Our blood pressure, instead of coming down as it should after the stressor has passed, stays up, as does our heart rate and respiration. We may continue to sweat, our pupils may remain dilated, and we still feel like eating nothing, since digestion remains stopped. The sympathetic nervous system, which is part of the autonomic nervous system, continues to be in control. Our muscles remain tight and we remain hypervigilant. To calm down, we must put the parasympathetic system back in control.
To do this, we must first of all be aware of our body enough to realize what is happening to us and what we need to do to calm ourselves. To ground ourselves again.
Our connection with others can help us to do this by helping us to normalize our experience. To realize that other people indeed - all human beings - react this way when stress comes on too fast and there is too much of it. To realize that our nervous system has been overwhelmed and become deregulated and that we must regain control quickly if we are not to be traumatized.
As Genie Everett, Ph.D., RN, points out in her trauma first-aid program, stress does not equal trauma. We can learn to ground ourselves and to put the rational mind back in control, but we need to have learned how to do this long before the potentially traumatic stressors occur. We need to be aware enough of our bodies and our reaction to stress to realize what we can do to calm ourselves and ground ourselves, and we need to practice these calming responses before we need them so that they are put into muscle memory and are there for us when the car accident occurs, when the boss tells us we're fired, when the terrorist attack occurs.
One size does not fit all. For some of us, this may mean taking control of our breathing so that we slow it consciously and make it deeper. For some of us it may be rocking or shaking, or crying, or yawning, or focusing our mind's eye on a color or a scene. Or putting our hands together or touching our heart. Whatever it is, we need to know it before we need it, and we need to have practiced using it.
Resilience means that we need to be in control and that unless we are attempting to escape from the jaws of a saber-toothed tiger, it is usually better if our rational mind rather than our reptilian brain is in control.