Skip to main content

Part 2: Regulate Your State of Arousal

In Part 1 of this series, you learned about the Body Budget. The body budget is both foundational for wellbeing and the first step in “anxiety triage.” It is foundational in that you give yourself the best chance of a good mood by keeping your body budget flush. It is “anxiety triage” because, if you’re feeling bad, it’s the first thing you check: Are you tired? Hungry? Thirsty? Have you moved your body today? Do you need a dose of nature? Has someone been mean to you? If you are aware of any deficits to the body budget, address them first.

The next level of mood management, the subject of today’s post, is learning to regulate your level of physiologic arousal.

“Physiologic arousal” refers to where you are on the so-called stress scale. From calm, to flight/fight, to frozen, each zone on the continuum is associated with physiologic responses in the body.

  1. Calm. In this state of arousal, you breathe slowly and deeply, your heart rate and blood pressure are normal, you can eat and digest normally, and you can be pro-social, mentally alert, and engaged.
  2. Flight/fight. The first instinct in a threatening situation is to run away: flight. If that’s ineffective, the next response to fight. In flight/fight, your breathing becomes fast and shallow, your heart races and blood pressure elevates, eating and digestion shut down, muscles tense, and your mental focus narrows to reacting to the threat.
  3. Freeze. When flight or fight are ineffective at returning you to safety, the nervous system resorts to shutting down: freezing. In this state, breathing and heart rate slow way down, blood pressure drops very low, muscles go slack, bowels may evacuate, and mental dissociation may happen.

It’s important to know that your level of physiologic arousal is managed sub-consciously – below the level of conscious awareness or control. In other words, you are not to blame. If you find yourself in flight/fight, it’s not your fault. If you freeze, it’s not your fault. Your body put you in that level of arousal for your safety. Once you are safe, you will “down regulate,” and move back into calm.

The trouble is, the body does not know the difference between real life and vividly imagined. That’s why many people who are physically safe but tortured by memories of the past or dread of the future find themselves in flight/fight – anxiety – and sometimes freeze – panic.

The good news is that high arousal is not meant to last, and you can help yourself out of it. Here’s a primer on how to down-regulate:

  1. Recognize what’s happening and remember two things: it’s not your fault and your thinking is not trustworthy in this state of mind. In flight/fight and freeze, your prefrontal cortex (your “thinking brain”), goes offline while more primitive brain structures take over to get you to safety, fast.
  2. Rate your level of arousal on scale of 0 (for relaxed and happy) to 10 (for panic).
  3. Move! The higher your state of arousal (before freezing), the more you move. Run, walk, dance, jump up and down, stretch, rotate your arms, shake your limbs. Your body wants to run or fight, so it has released glucose into the blood. Use it!
  4. Take control of your breathing. After you’ve begun to down-regulate your arousal through movement, sigh heavily, with your whole body, until you’re totally empty of breath. Then inhale slowly through your nose and inflate your belly like a balloon. This will insure you breathe deeply. Now begin measured breathing, counting into a count of 4 and out to a count of 8. Making the exhale longer than the inhale continues the process of down-regulation. Breathe this way until you feel calm and self-possessed again, 1-10 minutes.
  5. Ground and center yourself in your body. As you continue to breathe, withdraw attention from your thinking and pull it down to your feet. Close your eyes or gaze into the middle distance with eyes open and feel your feet on the floor or ground. Then slowly move your awareness up your body, feeling every inch of yourself. Feel the energy of your body. Really notice the life inside of you! You are noticing that you are actually okay.
  6. Be here now. Once you feel totally in your body again, allow yourself to focus on your senses. What do you see – colors, textures, light quality, objects? What do you hear? Taste? Smell? Touch? With this exercise, you are noticing that your environment is safe.
  7. Rate your level of arousal now. How did you do?
  8. Celebrate any achievement in down-regulating. Know that the more you practice, the better you’ll get at this.

If you are new to physiologic regulation, this primer is a good place to start. If you want to learn more, there are many good resources on the web. Here are two videos I recommend: one by Seth Porges and another by Matthias Schwenteck.

Leave a Reply