- Life's rollercoaster and unprocessed relational trauma challenges self-regulation.
- Self-regulation is vital for our well-being, our relationships, and for learning.
- The Window of Tolerance is ideally where we want to exist.
- Cultivate and customize a "Healthy Mind Platter" for foundational self-regulation.
This is part one of a two-part post. Click here for part two.
Life often resembles a rollercoaster of calm moments and intense emotions, especially for those with relational trauma backgrounds.
For those with such a background, self-regulation, a vital skill, may be challenging due to a lack of early support or lingering trauma.
In this two-part series, we'll explore practical tools for self-regulation.
Today, we'll cover self-regulation (specifically what it is and why it's so important), the concept of the "window of tolerance," and the significance of the "healthy mind platter" and help you develop your own version of this.
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 psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute. The term 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 their own attributes.
The optimal arousal zone is one of groundedness, flexibility, openness, curiosity, emotional regulation, and the ability to handle life's stressors. It equips us to navigate life confidently and rationally. However, when stressors push us beyond this zone, we may find ourselves in a hyperaroused or hypoaroused state.
The hyperarousal zone is marked by heightened emotions such as anger, panic, irritability, anxiety, and an overactive fight-or-flight response. This state can lead to impulsiveness, reduced rational thinking, and difficulty concentrating.
On the other hand, the hypoarousal zone involves shutting down emotionally, experiencing numbness, depression, withdrawal, and reduced physiological activity. Individuals in this state may seem lethargic and disconnected from their surroundings, making concentration and alertness challenging.
Ideally, we want to remain within the optimal arousal zone, but it's normal to occasionally step out of it. The goal is to increase our window of tolerance and regain equilibrium quickly when we do venture outside it.
But how do we do this?
Cultivating a "Health Mind Platter" to Increase Self-Regulation
To achieve better self-regulation skills, we need to address two essential skills:
First, we need to establish a foundation of biopsychosocial elements that promote a healthy, regulated nervous system. These elements are fundamental to our well-being and form the basis for staying within the optimal zone.
Second, we must build a toolbox of strategies to use when we inevitably find ourselves outside our window of tolerance. This toolbox equips us to rebound and regain emotional stability effectively (we'll talk more about developing your toolbox in our next essay).
The first crucial step in establishing this foundation is cultivating what Dan Siegel calls a "Healthy Mind Platter." This concept comprises seven core components:
- Focus Time: Engaging in challenging activities that create new neural connections, such as learning a musical instrument or solving puzzles.
- Play Time: Finding pleasure in novel experiences that foster fresh neural connections, like learning a new skill or volunteering.
- Connecting Time: Strengthening relational connections by engaging with others and appreciating nature, like attending social events or participating in community projects.
- Physical Time: Enhancing brain function through physical activity and movement, such as jogging or dancing.
- Time In: Promoting brain integration through self-reflection and mindfulness practices like journaling or meditation.
- Downtime: Rejuvenating the mind through leisurely focus or relaxation, like daydreaming or listening to music.
- Sleep Time: Consolidating knowledge and recuperating from daily experiences through sufficient sleep.
Building Your Own Healthy Mind Platter
While striving for all seven elements daily may be challenging, it's essential to remember that it's an ideal to work towards, not a daily requirement. Your healthy mind platter should be tailored to your unique circumstances and preferences.
To build your own customized healthy mind platter, consider these prompts to understand what each component means to you:
- What does focus time look like for you?
- How do you define play time as an adult?
- How can you engage in connecting time, both socially and with nature?
- What is your ideal physical time?
- How do you create time for self-reflection?
- What small moments of downtime can you incorporate into your routine?
- How can you protect your sleep time to support your emotional well-being?
Building a healthy mind platter lays the foundation for staying within your window of tolerance. It's the cornerstone of daily living that supports your self-regulation abilities.
Take time to reflect on these questions and consider how you can integrate them into your life.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.