Whether you have felt able to process the traumatic news lately or not, I think we can all agree that we are feeling it to some extent. And when we are feeling it, we know that our kids are feeling it too. So, how do we regulate through intense feelings of overwhelm, anger, fear, sadness, and despair? What does it even mean to regulate? In this post I will discuss ways we know we are feeling dysregulated and offer tips and exercises to help us manage these big feelings.
When I talk about regulation, I am talking about the way our nervous systems are able to run effectively, namely taking in all the input of the world - emotional, physical, sensory stimuli - and not becoming overwhelmed by it. Nervous system regulation allows you to maintain homeostasis, access restorative sleep, decrease inflammation, and is involved in memory, auditory processing, learning, controlling sensory processing and more. When regulated, we are able to access our executive functioning - logic, reason, adaptable thinking, self-awareness, etc. - in order to assist with any difficult emotions that arise.
A dysregulated nervous system will often cause us to respond (thoughts, feelings, behavior) in an apparently inappropriate (disproportional) way to an event, person, or situation, either by under-reacting (i.e. avoidance, distraction, withdrawal) or over-reacting (i.e. yelling, panicking, thought spiraling). Here are common behaviors that any age will exhibit when we are dysregulated:
Throwing tantrums (the most obvious, and yes, this includes road rage or storming off to our room for us adults)
Over-planning & over-scheduling oneself - staying busy
Staying in bed longer than usual or no energy to interact with others; isolating
Increase in phone/electronics usage
Moving so fast we keep dropping things or hurting ourself; bumping into things
Forgetting things, missing appointments
Increased desire for control & high level of upset when things don't go the way we expected
These behaviors are all ways we are attempting to regulate when uncomfortable feelings arise. They may work in the short term - but they aren't actually addressing the root of what is causing us to be dysregulated. What we eventually want is to build regulation strategies that help us to stay present in the discomfort rather than avoid or distract. When our threat response feels activated, we are wanting to find ways to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and calm. Let's explore some of these regulation strategies that you can begin to implement into daily life.
Our best reference for how to care for our nervous systems comes from how we treat babies. As infants, we were all connected to our mothers' nervous systems because ours was still growing and dependent on others for co-regulation. The same strategies (& some others) are the ones we can use for toddlers, children, teens, and as adults. Below are some of those strategies and how to implement them independently & together with loved ones:
Breathing: the most accessible, even just noticing your breaths and taking a deep cleansing exhale or sigh can help soothe the nervous system when stressed. Bonus points for making a big noise or horse lips as you exhale - especially when feeling anxious.
Rocking: gently rock side to side or back & forth - sitting down or while standing (this one is my favorite! Sometimes I do it without even noticing).
Patting/Tapping: (see video below to show these hugs)
The Vagus Nerve Hug: place your right hand on your lat/under the armpit of your left side, and your left arm on your upper right arm/shoulder, like giving yourself a hug; gently tap your right hand on your left side body to stimulate the vagus nerve which connects to our parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for rest and calm.
The Butterfly Hug: create a butterfly with your hands by crossing your thumbs, palms facing your body. Lay the butterfly on your chest and slowly/gently tap the left then right, left then right. This creates bi-lateral stimulation, which helps encourage communication between the emotional brain and logical brain to help us process and regulate through emotions, especially anxiety.
Humming or Singing: Because your vagus nerve runs through both the larynx and pharynx in your throat, humming and singing create vibrations that stimulate your vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Movement: walking, dancing, exercise are all great ways of getting us more in our bodies and helping to release any excess energy or stimulate us when we are feeling shut down. The most gentle and soothing practice here I have found is taking a walk outside, even if it's around the block. A fun family way to regulate is of course a dance party! We get to move, connect, most likely laugh - the goofier the dancing, the better!
Earthing/Spending Time in Nature: Earthing is the practice of walking barefoot on the Earth, to connect us with the magnetic field of the Earth. The negative charge of the Earth is able to absorb the positive electrons from our bodies, which when we have too many positive electrons, it can wreak all sorts of havoc in our bodies, namely stress. Research on earthing and spending time in nature has found that the practice helps to improve the functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Crying & Laughing: sometimes we just need a good release. Having a good cry or a good laugh can help release stored emotion in the body. Watching happy/sad videos of inspiring stories or cute animals reconnects us with joy and a wider perspective of safety. Watching a sad movie or listening to a meaningful song that triggers tears can help this release that almost automatically calms an anxious system. Some of my favorites: for the whole family: Inside Out, Frozen 2, Moana, The Neverending Story; for adults: Forrest Gump, Finding Neverland, Captain Fantastic, This is Us (TV series)
Feeling your Feelings!: as the previous strategy suggests, sometimes, the baby just needs to cry and let it all out, and the same goes for us! Giving ourselves the space to feel the anger, sadness, fear, despair, joy, etc. is the best way to regulate because it involves release. It can feel harder to hold in all of these after awhile, and sometimes we need a big breakdown. Allow that to happen if you can, and afterwards I always love a little reward - a movie night, ordering takeout, a relaxing bath.