A Calm in the Storm, Part I: Decreasing Emotional Reactivity

sun shines through storm cloudsEditor’s note: This is the first of two parts in a series about emotional reactivity and how body-based psychotherapy can help. Part II appears here.

Our experience of this life is a bodily one. From our perceptions to our moods, the sensory data flowing within our body influences, moment to moment, our experience of self, other, and world.

Personal narrative emerges from sensation.

And sensation follows personal narrative.

From this perspective, as biological responders, our bodies are capable of moving us between two radically different realities. We might conceptualize it as the same story told by two different writers. In one story, we feel internally anxious, the world around us foreboding and relentlessly demanding. In the other story, we notice a calm, connected contentment. We feel OK.

Which book will we read? And do we really have a choice?

The Ups and Downs of Our Nervous Systems

The autonomic nervous system—the biology that regulates our breathing, keeps blood flowing, and maintains the equilibrium of the body without conscious effort—does so by striking a balance, as needed, between energy-up and energy-down. When we need energy up (sometimes to survive immediate threat, sometimes to connect and play), the brain prepares the body for action by activating the sympathetic side of the nervous system. (Breathe in.) When not balanced by the parasympathetic side, fight-or-flight can occur, diverting energy away from unnecessary systems such as speech, digestion, and long-term memory. In a functioning system, when the threat (or other energy requirement) has passed, the parasympathetic side returns systems to their regular function, switching into maintenance and repair mode. (Breathe out.)

It is the union and balance of these two sides—sympathetic and parasympathetic—that brings peace. On our “good” days, there’s a rhythm to this. Breathe in, breathe out. For many, sometimes biologically predisposed and especially in trauma, the rhythm breaks, leaving them with bodily systems more prone to one side or the other: on alert (sympathetic) or frozen (parasympathetic).

While much of this is simply automatic, we have some degree of choice in noticing and responding to internal processes. We know techniques and practices to engage energy-up or energy-down as needed, and the more often we do so, the easier it becomes to inhabit a world of our choosing. While we may not avoid the pain of life, we may dramatically reduce the suffering.

Out of Sync: A Weighted Body in a Hostile World

Our story, as told by a less balanced author, feels heavy and overwhelming.

This is a world of navigation rather than interaction, of survival rather than connection.

The body, when charging to the sympathetic end of the spectrum, often feels rigid and constricted. When falling into the parasympathetic end, the body might feel completely separate, like we are floating above it in some space where thoughts and words feel hazy or distant. This world, out of balance either way, often brings with it some expectation (often subconscious or unrecognized) of impending threat.

This is a world outside of us. We focus externally, sometimes hyper-aware of surrounding environment. If we are focused, we are not absorbing. More often, we are replaying movies in our minds—looping through old information, unable to bring in or feel new sensory input.

This is imbalance.

As much as we believe that the brain will save us, in this uncomfortable world, no amount of analysis, planning, or rumination will change our experience of life. We cannot think our way out of this story.

We are reconstructing trauma. People around us may cease being human, becoming instead objects of threat, expected to play out past abuse: judge us, physically harm us, leave us, or just get in our way when we need to move to survive.

It’s not just wars and “obvious” abuses. Sometimes it’s the workplace or walking down the street. Sometimes it’s a sense that we’ve forgotten how to relax. We keep seeking relaxation, and in that search for peace it eludes us. We might smoke, seek orgasm, watch television, or play video games. We attempt to force balance, to force regulation. And only rarely do we stop. Release feels always another step away.

“Do more.”

From this place of physical activation, problems feel amplified and urgent, roadblocks unavoidable. We become attuned to threats, more likely to perceive or elicit them. We may notice an urgency to “do” or prove something, and somehow the resources at hand are not enough, or we get stuck in an endless loop of “doing” without stopping to appreciate the completion of tasks. Various neural resources go offline, and we are left ruminating or analyzing with a sense that resolution remains a step away.

The Closed Loop

Our unbalanced states provide unreliable witness. We cannot trust our own perceptions, intuition, or expectations of self, other, or world. When activated, we revert to internal models, defaults, obsolete (non-present) information. This is the brain: looping, telling stories, repeating old information. Present information comes through our senses, our bodies.

As much as we believe that the brain will save us, in this uncomfortable world, no amount of analysis, planning, or rumination will change our experience of life. We cannot think our way out of this story. The thoughts themselves, more prone to negativity, are working against us.

Coming Next: Dropping Out of Reactivity

In our reaction to this bodily overwhelm, we often escape into our heads. Thought becomes the refuge from sensations. This is the beginning of reactivity.

In the next installment, we’ll look at ways to access a more comfortable reality on a regular basis over time. And we’ll expand on the origin of seemingly automatic reactions, exploring ways to transform them into mindful, intentional responses.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy McAllister, MA, LPC, therapist in Portland, Oregon

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 13 comments
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  • stevie

    stevie

    September 15th, 2015 at 10:22 AM

    haha also known as having a short temper?

  • Jeremy

    Jeremy

    September 16th, 2015 at 10:13 AM

    Absolutely, Stevie. :)
    Just slowing down and zooming in to notice what is actually happening…

  • Ingrid S.

    Ingrid S.

    October 27th, 2018 at 3:32 PM

    You’ve captured this experience really well Jeremy. Looking forward to part 2 😊

  • Lorna

    Lorna

    September 16th, 2015 at 10:43 AM

    When I become very agitated and I suppose emotionally reactive, I can feel it on a physical level too. I become very anxious and I know that my blood pressure goes on the rise. Not a great feeling so I try to take a step back if and when this happens and focus on deep breathing and calming thoughts. Does not always help but it does bring me back down a notch or two so that I can begin to think clearly again.

  • garrison

    garrison

    September 17th, 2015 at 11:10 AM

    Much of this is going to naturally happen as a result of getting to better know yourself, your needs and your trigger points better and on a deeper level. I find that the better you know yourself then the more likely it will be to live your life without all of the emotional negativity.

  • Andrea B

    Andrea B

    September 17th, 2015 at 7:46 PM

    Yes!! This!!
    As a practitioner of Somatic Experiencing, I am soooooo glad to see this very well written blog post.

    These are concepts and practices whose time has come.
    This is what heals people, in my experience.

    We can’t brain our way out of these stuck loops. We have to learn to go into them, get to know them, work with them, in a way that the client experiences as manageable.

    Thank you for posting!

  • Lee

    Lee

    September 21st, 2015 at 10:26 AM

    I think that any time you can discover a way to take a time out and deescalate the situation you are then doing something that is going to be very positive for yourself.
    This is the thing that is going to bring us the peace that so many of us want and perceive to be lacking in our lives… well this is the key to having that in your life.
    But truthfully it is a choice that we make and we have to be willing to do the work that it takes to complete the process.

  • Jess

    Jess

    September 21st, 2015 at 6:22 PM

    Ever had an extremely serious and long lasting, still continuing bout of PTSD and Major Anxiety so that walking and talking become impossible? If you have, you might realize how shallow Stevie’s “loss of temper” and other replys are.

  • Jbird

    Jbird

    September 27th, 2016 at 7:01 PM

    Yes, a short temper is pretty benign compared to the crippling hypervigilant state that my body feels “stuck” on. It causes a host of physical ailments that you can’t just breathe or stretch your way through. My mind has been my enemy since childhood, and I’ve dreamt of escaping it many days. This was a good article explaining the imbalance that happens. On a human level, it can feel like pure hell though :(

  • lw

    lw

    September 22nd, 2015 at 1:26 PM

    I recently began studying equine assisted psychotherapy and have found that involving horses in therapy is actually a very good way to make clients aware of this loop of thought and behavior and to help them break out of if. Many programs, including the one I volunteer with, use rescue horses who have also suffered trauma and through client testimonials, they talk about the bond they feel that gives them with the horse and how it helps them in their recovery. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is still a fairly new field, but has shown promise in helping the people you describe above.

  • AuldLSyne

    AuldLSyne

    September 23rd, 2015 at 3:29 AM

    I have been looping. Breaking off with a NPDxbf . I get so incredibly angry, so much of the time I’ve had to suppress any anger for months on end to avoid a conflict. A month and a half ago he was crying and devastated for leaving some girl behind and I am the one who soothes him. The only one of so many women and men he works for supply who are at his beck and call. We’ve been breaking it off all summer, each week each month we wait for him to make any small gesture of returning the years of solid advice, the 100s and 1000s of dollars he made from letting me handle some business affairs for him,some way to return the luxurious way that I have “held his hand” as I now having problems with this non sensical break up. He rides past my house daily on his motorcycle, but he refuses like a freak , like a creepy child molesting bully as**ole to do these tiny gestures that reciprocate like 1% of what he gained from me. It is disgusting! He’ll have phone sex w me . he’ll write everyday about protecting me and keeping me safe then drive right by when he knows I’m crying. He’s such a c*nt that way and I am so infuriated. I want to bully him back with a bat to his QUE ball head. He’s a tiny little wife beater in a man’s body and I have no where to take this anger so I am keeping it in. I stay in, I’m a happy person normally and getting more and more shut in and unwilling to do anything. I want to punch him like he punches women. I can’t write in Narc group. The alternative seems pretty final ..

  • Dawit

    Dawit

    September 30th, 2016 at 9:43 AM

    I like Part I: Decreasing Emotional Reactivity and the explanation is precise and easy to regular person to understand. Nevertheless, seems that brain is not the core of our thinking and I believe their is something greater than that keep all record some where and when we sensed it perceptive through the central nervous system. as “As much as we believe that the brain will save us, in this uncomfortable world, no amount of analysis, planning, or rumination will change our experience of life. We cannot think our way out of this story. The thoughts themselves, more prone to negativity, are working against us.

  • Dawit

    Dawit

    October 5th, 2016 at 12:18 PM

    Coming Next: Dropping Out of Reactivity
    I ‘m waiting to read about, Dropping out of reactivity…
    When this would be posted.

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