Regulating the Dysregulated

I have been writing about the work of Dr. Bruce Perry because he is a specialist in helping people who are traumatized. And to some extent right now we all are. Dr. Perry talks about the levels of the brain that respond to our experience. There is cerebellum at the bottom, which regulates heart beat, breathing and so on. There is the diencephalon, which regulates sensory and body input. There is the limbic level, which deals with emotions, and there is the cortex where we do our best thinking.

The thing is, all inputs go through the system from the bottom up: “Is it a threat? Is it a problem to take immediate action on? Is it a feeling that means something?” And if all of those are okay, “How should I understand it and respond to it?” The problem is, when we get hijacked by the emotions, or worse yet, the survival fears, we get stuck at the bottom, and we cannot think. Our IQ goes down 30 or 40 points. Amazing, right?

So Dr. Perry says when we are stuck below the level of reason and reflection, we are dysregulated. We cannot think, we cannot do what we need to do, we cannot fully understand our experience. We make impulsive decisions based on fear. We lose our most valuable capacity: the smart part of our brains.

You can stop, pay attention to your own mind, and figure out whether you are dysregulated by noticing how difficult it is for you to do what you want to do: Can you follow your routines to take care of yourself? Can you read a book and comprehend what it is saying? Do you feel calm and problem-solving or do you feel distracted and worried?

Okay, so if you are dysregulated, or if someone around you is dysregulated, you can take some kind of regulating action. It can be very brief:

Distract yourself with movies, stand-up comedy on youtube, or read a simple book.

Move your body. Even 5 minutes of physical movement will shift your state of mind. Put on music and clap to it. Do a two step side to side. Bend in ways your body likes.

–Take some constructive action: clean your room, take a shower, fix or  make something with your hands, write in a journal.

–And the most powerful regulator: Connect with someone else. As a social species we co-regulate. Look for relationships that are reassuring and encouraging. Intentionally connect with those people, even if you don’t need to.

Keep re-regulating yourself whenever you feel dysregulated. In the current situation, we are going to get dysregulated at times. That is not the problem. We need to re-regulate. Practice short bursts of paying attention to your state of mind and your level of dysregulation, and then try different ways of re-regulating to find what works for you.  Practicing getting back on track helps us get better and better at it. After this, we are going to look back and say to ourselves, “If I can get through that, I can get through ANYTHING!”

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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