Part 2: Get Regulated
Raise your hand if the term ‘self-care’ makes your skin crawl.
I know. Me too. I don’t have time for it. I am not a person for whom the images conjured by the term ‘self-care’ are comforting. I’m not getting hot stone massages. I’m not doing yoga on the beach. I am typing at a dining room table, half covered by “work stuff” (my kids’ term) and half covered by toys, in what I refer to as my work-from-home mullet: professional attire from the shoulders up, who knows what from the shoulders down.
I was actually supposed to write this yesterday. But, go figure, I was exhausted and unproductive. Sound familiar? Good. If not, hop over to Part 1 of this series to read or to review why exhaustion and difficulty focusing are valid and expected responses to the collective trauma that is COVID-19.
We are here to talk about solutions. Yes, we will be talking about the ways we care for ourselves — our physical, mental, social, and spiritual health — and why, in terms of brain science, caring for ourselves is crucial. But we will be using the term “self-regulation” as it is far more appropriate for this conversation.
Before we dive in, let’s start with a breath. A simple in and out. Don’t change it in anyway, just bring your attention to the rise and fall.
All of the unknowns, the changes, and the losses COVID-19 continues to bring means we, collectively, continue to experience a prolonged stress response — the alarm keeps on ringing. We are activated, which means we are dysregulated, which means we aren’t able to access the smartest parts of our brains. If we are to get ourselves to a state of relative calm, we have to shut off the alarm. This is the idea behind regulation; the topic of this piece being self-regulation, or the ways we soothe ourselves.
Self-regulation can happen from the top of the brain down, or the bottom of the brain up. Top-down approaches are those that require a lot of self-talk. Reasoning with yourself. Reminding yourself of relevant facts. So, what parts of the brain do the majority of the work in a top-down approach? You’ve got it: the thinking parts. Given what we know about trauma, stress, and brain functioning, do these approaches work well? Let’s walk through an example.
You’re alone, cozy in bed and about to drift off to sleep (remember when that used to happen?), when you hear a loud banging sound coming from somewhere in your house. It startles you upright; your heart is racing, pounding in your ears. You’re frozen in fear. You may try to tell yourself the doors and windows are locked, there’s no way an intruder could’ve gotten in, so on and so forth. Would that stop your heart from racing? Get you out of the freeze response? Probably not. Top-down ways of self-regulating don’t work well in times of high activation and distress. To put it another way, you can’t talk yourself out of a trauma response.
Bottom-up approaches, on the other hand, work in the opposite direction. Soothing the lower parts of the brain first can help to bring the thinking brain back online, at which point it becomes accessible to us. According to Dr. Bruce Perry, creator of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT), neural networks change in response to brief, repetitive stimulation. As such, self-regulatory experiences are most effective when they are patterned, repetitive, rhythmic and rewarding. Ideally they are also relational, but we will get to that in Part 3 of this series. What does this look like? Things like walking, dancing, humming, singing, swimming, drawing, knitting, praying. Breathwork. Yoga. Sports. Those of you baking sourdough bread or making risotto from scratch? That’s self-regulation. Me, writing this? That’s also self-regulation. It looks different for everyone, but it has to be fun.
Take another breath here. Bring your attention to any part of your body that is being supported by what’s beneath it.
Two related concepts within the NMT, especially relevant to COVID-19 related stress, are dosing and structure. If we can mindfully ‘dose’ and bring structure to our regulatory experiences, we will be in a much better place. Because our stress response system re-calibrates moment to moment, small amounts of self-soothing, self-regulating experiences throughout the day are far more effective than one large chunk, especially when we are highly activated. This could be why what used to work to calm you isn’t working right now. We aren’t able to go to gyms, yoga studios, music or painting classes, but if we were, engaging in a one-hour class or practice per week — or even per day — would not be enough to get and keep us regulated. The ‘therapeutic dose’ required to signal change can be just 3 minutes or 5 minutes long (watch Dr. Perry discuss all of this here ). So when we say, like I did, that we don’t have time for it? We’re wrong.
So. Small amounts of self-regulation, often, that are thoughtfully structured. Consider what this can look like for you during your day. If you know you have to do something that will increase your stress (a particular conversation, or Zoom meeting, or checking the news, for example) try to schedule self-regulation breaks immediately before and after. Get outside for a few minutes, dance or sing to a favorite song, do some ‘brain dump’ journaling. If you are a person who, like many, are now responsible for educating your children on top of everything else, think about what this means for them, too. The most beautifully color-coded daily academic schedule (perhaps regulatory for you as you created it) will mean nothing if your kids are in survival mode, their stress alarm bells ringing. Be sure to structure in time for the fun stuff. And please, if they (or you!) are struggling, don’t take it away as punishment. You’ll all be worse off.
Take another breath, and bring in an image: in this next hour of your day, what will you do to regulate yourself?
Next time, we will look at the importance of connection, and the power relational regulation has in buffering us from trauma and stress. I will continue to dose your regulation for you with breath breaks (you’re welcome), and we will keep it brief but informative.
Part 3. Stay Connected (Available here)
Part 4. Stop Scrolling (Available here)
And keep breathing.
About the Author
Dr. Jennifer A. King is the Assistant Director of the Center on Trauma and Adversity and an Assistant Professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.