Managing our own high emotions

I have been asked to say more about ‘affect regulation‘. This involves safe experiments to promote greater calmness. It’s my view this should be taught in schools and it appears Mindfulness practices have taken off in places. However, what about a much simpler and more immediate set of strategies? These are available – at our finger tips.

Maybe the label puts folk off. Affect Regulation (AR) sounds rather mysterious and complicated. Indeed, it can be; lengthy and dense texts have been written with Affect Regulation in the title. In the complexity of it all, the topic seems to have become surrounded by mystery. Even so, at one level it is simple and can be implemented, in practice, within seconds.

Why do we need Affect Regulation?

Our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) can get out of hand, aided and abetted by our Amygdala,  the key manager of our high emotions. When the amygdala fires, it is possible to jump out of our Window of Tolerance  (WoT)  and race for the four extremities in that WoT illustration, e.g. toward tempting ‘solutions’ such as catastrophising, ritual and chaos. These ’emergency’ responses have a place as they can initiate the anger and that might get us going.

However, high levels of emotion need to be a temporary and brief reaction. It can a problem when the response becomes ‘institutionalised’ –  an habitual response within us.  Such habits can be to both our emotional and physical detriment. For a rather complicated, but thorough and insightful  illustration into the way the autonomic nervous system works, take a look at Babette Rothschild’s web site.

When our less smart and older sibling, underneath the Cerebral Cortex – and the amygdala in particular – senses a TRIGGER – a risk or some danger – it reacts instantly to prepare us to defend ourselves and/or to escape.

The immediate release of adrenaline helps us to focus and act with unusual rapidity. However, that only works for a short while and unless the danger is addressed and resolved, our bodies start to react badly. Our ability to respond becomes impaired.

Here are some of the things that happen. Are they familiar to you?

… we become clumsy, giddy, disorientated, less able to reason and even our vision can become impaired. We want to get to the toilet sharpish. We feel badly about ourselves and our lack of decisiveness.

Now, why should our bodies promote such a seemingly unhelpful set of responses? It would appear that our bodies share a complication that has faced Microsoft Windows. Our nervous system consists of a number elements that do not always communicate smoothly with one another. There have been a number of ‘add-ons’ to the system over many millions of years. The diagram below, illustrates how antagonistic elements in our autonomic nervous system can help us stay balanced OR get out of control.

Stephen Porges,  from whom this diagram was borrowed, has added a lot to our knowledge of how our bodily ‘warning systems’ developed over millions of years.

Controlled breathing helps us engage in a re-balancing act and can slow the argumentative communications within the autonomic nervous system. The main features of controlled breathing are to breathe in through the nose slowly. I recommend a slow count of three and the same count of three as you breathe out through the mouth or nose. I’d expect most folk to notice a difference in their bodily reaction within 30/40 seconds.

I can say this, as we are talking ‘physiology’ here – not psychology.  Physiology impacts on us in similar ways but our psychological responses are more complex. Why ? Because human beings are awkward beggars. Our bodies – male, female; black or white, old or young are constructed in very similar ways. Our differences arise from the way in which our genetic map unfolds as well as our experiences over the years, as we grow and adapt.

There are a large number of controlled breathing exercises, but the one I summarise here is the most basic. Try this simple experiment for less than a minute – a number of times a day.  This is easier than you think; you do not need to set aside time for this safe experiment. You can will yourself to do it anytime – except when eating, drinking or speaking!!

With a following wind, controlled breathing can give us the micro-second we need to simply to just notice what our bodies are saying. At that point, we may be better equipped to STOP, LOOK and LISTEN (do you remember how you were taught to cross roads!). This can help us start something else. Controlled breathing can lead us to regain an awareness of other choices available to us and provide just enough time to form options and make judgments about other ways to act.

We do not need a lot of time to act just that little bit differently.

For a user-friendly account of the neural connectedness involved here, visit a YouTube presentation by Dan Siegel talking about the hand model of the head-brain.

Return to:


How to …. nudge

How to do safe experiments

Designing a safe experiment





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