When stress hijacks our nervous system, our ability to remain resilient is greatly jeopardized. Our resiliency zone (RZ), aka our social engagement system, is a physiological and psychological state from which we thrive. When we are within our RZ we connect with the world and the people in our lives in an open way; our stress level is regulated so that it doesn’t tax our body, emotions and mind. Being in our zone allows for secure and genuine relationships, from strangers to intimate lovers and everyone in-between.
This adorable little girl gives a wise reality check to her mom. She makes it clear that mom’s bouts of explosive anger towards her ex-husband have a deep and painful effect on her. As you look at the video, notice how often she puts her hand to her heart; clearly expressing where she feels the pain when mom and dad are “way up there”, fighting with each other. She truly understands what it means to be in the resilient zone, “where we smile and be friend”.
This lovely young soul also knows the difference between being grounded and being stuck in the “low-zone”. The low-zone is when our nervous system shuts down and/or freezes; when we check out and/or dissociate. When she says to mom: “I’m trying to be steady, on the floor, not way down…”. In her great wisdom she expresses that the goal for mom is to remain grounded and resourced. Not to allow herself to get flooded, or at the opposite, to shut down. She is pleading for mom to do what she must to remain resilient when she engages with dad.
How can mom avoid being flooded by anger and bully her ex-husband; or loose footing, become depressed and shut down? What can mom do to increase her resiliency, so that she can better adapt to this painful separation with her ex-husband?
First, let’s explain a bit more what the resiliency zone is. What the high-zone and low-zone are, and what leads us to get hijacked in the upper or lower zones. I’ll conclude by offering 7 ways to support us, and our relationships, from being taken out of our resiliency zone, or promptly return to it when we get bumped-out.
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As the diagram above explains, this is what our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) looks like when it works in harmony. Our ANS regulates the unconscious functions our body performs such as: heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, respiration, sexual arousal, etc. For our purposes here, we’ll focus on what the ANS does in periods of high stress and trauma; as is the case during a separation and/or after a divorce.
When the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches work in a homeostatic balance, we tense up and we relax. We get a charge and a discharge. We get going and make things happen; and we know when to slow down and to stop, rest and repair. When stressors affect us, we have the ability to deal with them adaptively. In other words, our RZ is our embodied ability to go with the flow and to remain socially engaged. From this state of being, we honor and respect others and ourselves. We are not a doormat or a victim of the world, nor do we need to boast, control and intimidate others. We are who we are, and let others be who they are. From this vantage point we naturally focus on our share humanity, our common points of interest and our goals. We accept our differences without tensing up and becoming rigid, in body, mind and emotion. When we are in our resiliency zone we experience joy; we feel connected to our inner experience and to the world around us, from lovers to strangers. Our hearts and minds are open. We feel safe.
Unfortunately, life is not always as simple. Our sense of connection and safety with the world at large, and with the people we care about, can easily be challenged, threatened, and sometimes even shattered. The chart above describes the effects “Traumatic Events or Triggers” have on our ANS. When we feel a significant threat that is beyond our ability to cope and adapt, to remain in our social engagement system; a threat that is perceived as a danger for our emotional, mental and physical survival, our ANS takes over. When this happens, our ability to think through our actions and reactions is jeopardized. In other words, our social engagement system weakens. At worse, it goes offline.
When we are in our fight-and-flight mode we argue and can’t listen to the other person; we talk over other people; we raise our voices or yell; we use loaded words, our faces turn red from frustration or anger, we threaten others or our relationships; our arms and hands start flaring, or worse, throwing things or punching, etc. All of these behaviors and countless others are signs that we are amped-up. The real challenge in such situations is to keep our arguments in perspective. The real danger is that our need to be right trumps our desire to be happy and to and remain connected. This is how bad situations turn worse, and sometimes beyond repair. Because the arousal of the sympathetic branch unleashes a cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters which prepare us for war, our best bet is often to remove ourself from the situation and give ourself time to let our war-cocktail dissipate from our body. Once a surge has happened, it usually takes a minimum of 20 to 40 minutes, if not more, before we return to our “normal self”; free from our fight-and-flight mode.
Our ANS evaluates in split seconds if a charge of our sympathetic system works, or not. If our ANS assesses that our sympathetic arousal strategy doesn’t work, the parasympathetic branch takes over and moves us into a “freeze or hypo-arousal” mode, or into an avoidant and dissociative state. All mammals are wired this way, and so are we!
Because our ANS literally equates these moments as putting our survival at risks, the things that are said and done in such moments are often way beyond what is called for, and what our arguments are really about. As a consequence, feelings and emotions can be badly hurt, and difficult to mend. Unfortunately reasoning and left brain apologies: “you know I didn’t mean it, just get over it…” seldom work. Because the harm is done in the right limbic system (emotions, feelings, sensations, spatial time, tone of voice, rolling of the eyes, etc.), the language of the left neo-cortex (reasoning, logic, pragmatic, linear thinking and clock time) often doesn’t heal the hurt that was caused during these intense, emotionally charged moments.
As you look more closely at the chart above, notice if you have a propensity to be stuck-on-high, or stuck-on-low. Or, if your tendency is to move back and forth between the upper and lower range. A closer look at the three yellow arrows on the upper range indicates the level of hyper-arousal that we are susceptible to experience. Arrows 1 and 2 indicate peaks that do not last as long in time as arrow 3. It also shows that the degree of intensity of 1 is less than that of arrow 2 and 3. In fact, level 3 is what we refer to as being stuck-on-high, while level 1 and 2 are more about being reactive or having a short fuse.
The same applies for the lower zone. People who tend to crash in the lower zone often shut down, withdrawn, isolate and tend to avoid conflicts. Unfortunately, avoiding and withdrawing doesn’t mean that the conflicts are not there. They are just not being addressed, and discharged. The flooding is internalized, but nevertheless experienced. Pointer 6 shows the “stuck on low” mode, which is the more pervasive and long lasting of the three parasympathetic arrows.
Let us clarify that we all have moments of being out of our zone. Such is life of the sophisticated mammals we are! However, when we identify patterns of being constantly thrown out of our social engagement system, we can be sure that deeper psychological and emotional wounding are at the root of it. When our unresolved and unhealed pain keep on being triggered, it activates our ANS. This is what ultimately hijacks us out of our RZ. People who spend most of their lives suck-on-high or stuck-on-low are miserable. Their lives are a real struggle; and at worse, a living hell. Sadly enough, the people in their lives may have a tendency to keep their distance because they feel powerless to help; and/or tired of engaging with them in their “upper-range” dramas, or pulled-down into their depressive and dissociative states. People who live in 3 and 6 are taxing their physiological and psychological health. To make things worse, most often they cannot snap out of their “stuck-ness” on their own. They need help. They also need to be willing to reach out to others, and to let others in. This is often quite challenging for two main reasons. One, the shame and guilt of being out of control prevents them from admitting that their mental and emotional life is in turmoil; and to reach out for help. Shame abhors our weaknesses and deficits. Two, being stuck on high, or on low, is how their ANS keeps them safe: ready for war, or isolating from conflicts. Trusting someone to gently and skillfully return them to their resiliency zone feels like the last thing they want to do. From a neuro-psychological perspective, it is counter-intuitive and often socially frowned upon. Yet, if they are to live from a socially engaged ANS, they need to address the unhealed parts of the self that keep on being triggered.
So, how does knowing all of this serve us individually, and benefits our relationships? Because the harm caused when we are stuck on high or on low tends to affect those who are emotionally closer to us, those who are more vulnerable and who have weaker boundaries, it behooves us–the adults we are–to really get it. After all, if a charming 6 year old can articulate our psychobiology so simply, and is willing to do her part, we owe it to her, and the people in our life to do the same
What can we do when we are on the verge of being hijacked, or are already there?
1) First, we must identify the arousal taking place as early as possible, and not fool ourselves thinking “this time I will remain in control, I just have to get this off my chest first now, or withdraw, avoid and isolate”. The more we pretend we can control the war-hormonal cocktail which is beginning to flow in our body, the more we put ourselves at risk of loosing perspective of what is really going on in our body and mind, and with others. If the person in front of us says something like, “You are raising your voice/yelling at me… You are all red in the face… You look angry… You are scaring me, etc.”, our ability to think clearly, and act in a socially engaged manner, is already jeopardized. We are already in war mode, and those around us most definitely feel it and know it. So, what are we to do then? A safe bet is to leave. Now. Take a break and return later. Let the person in front of us know we are going for a walk. Take a good amount of time. 30 minutes or more is often a safe bet. Once we are calmer, we can return and talk things over. And we don’t talk things over until we really are calmer.
2) Keep a mental scale of 0-10 in our mind, where 0-4 has us in our resiliency zone, 5-7 has us amped-up or amped-down, 8 has us at arrow 1 or 4, 9 has us at arrow 2 & 5, and 10 has us totally stuck-on-high or stuck-on-low at arrow 3 & 6. We must learn to identify how different our body feels and reacts when we are at 4 and at 5-6. We must be humble enough to know that once we pass 5-6, we are literally playing with fire. While we may like to think we’re in control, let’s not kid ourselves. We are not. The cocktail is already making us see and feel things from its perspective, a war-mode perspective, not a resiliency zone perspective. As we begin tracking our body being in a sympathetic or parasympathetic arousal, we’ll soon realize that we can’t control our arousal pass a certain level. This is why we must learn to act before it is too late.
3) When we get aroused, we lose contact with the ground. When we are in the upper range, we literally don’t feel our feet making contact with the floor. Reminding ourselves to bring our attention to our feet, and the surface they make contact with, will definitely help us remain grounded. This can often be an efficient way to get us back in our RZ. Another efficient way to remain grounded is to make visual or sensory contact with objects. Noticing the texture, temperature, colors or vibrancy of the objects that draw our attention, while paying attention to how they make us feel better on the inside. These are all great ways to help us stay, or return in our RZ. They are efficient ways to anchor us in the experience of what feels good within us, even when there are good reasons to get amped-up or amped-down. These techniques help us to know, from the inside, that we can’t be in our resiliency zone without being grounded first. We always lose when we pretend we can argue with gravity!
4) When we are hijacked, our body tenses up. Being able to identify where in our body we feel “neutral and positive”, instead of feeling all tensed up or knotted up, greatly helps too. Focusing on the places in our body that feel neutral or better engages our ability to more clearly think. Therefore it reinforces our ability to remain within our RZ. Doing so while helping our body release its tension and extra stress are powerful tools to help prevent psychological, emotional and physical stressors to pull us out of our zone.
5) Ask for support. When we know we have a tendency to get amped-up or amped-down, it is quite helpful to ask for help from people we trust. It’s amazing what a friendly face and hug can do in periods of stress, especially when we are about to explode or shutdown. On the other hand, if we feel annoyed or anger towards someone we care about, we may not want to be touched, or be too close to that person. We may need some time alone. Away from the person so that we can regroup and get our thoughts together; and let the war-hormonal cocktail dissipate from our system. Physical activity such as doing a few push-ups, going out for a walk, pushing against a wall, squatting, or a 10-15 minutes of deeper “belly” breaths–while focusing on the exhale–can all serve us well in getting us back in our zone.
6) Agree once and for all that our relationships come first. When we get into arguments, we get seduced by our righteousness to be angry or annoyed with the other person, or to shut-down. Our limbic system goes into the dumpster and recycle bin, and searches for any past events that looks and feels the way we do; and serves it back to the person with whom we are angry. “You always say… You never do… Last month, last year, twenty years ago you… You just can’t help yourself but to…”. Even when the facts are accurate, bringing up our righteous arguments, and our all-or-nothing statements during highly emotionally charged moments is not helping, at all. Such comments only fuel the fire. Sadly enough, they do not address the core issues: our need to be heard, understood, met with respect, and taken care of in moments of vulnerability, fear and anxiety.
Let us be clear that we are not talking about shoving things under the carpet, or becoming a doormat; or that we should never get into difficult conversations, conflicts, or out of our zone. That would be an impossible task and quite detrimental for our own health, and the health of our relationships. What we are saying is that when we put our relationships first, we lose our right to attack, hurt, snap or retaliate just because they did it first, or that we felt attacked. However, we gain a guiding principle that keeps our relationships secure, even in stressful and challenging moments.
7) Lastly, do not threaten the relationship. Being angry, disappointed, feeling hurt or let down are one thing. Threatening to end our relationships because we have these feelings is another issue. People who constantly threaten their relationships erode the foundation on which a sense of safety and security grows. Without that foundation, we can’t remain within our resiliency zone, and our hearts can’t remain open to others.
Learning to remain within our social engagement system, or to return to it promptly when we are amped-up or amped-down, allows us to say what we mean, and mean what we say; while taking the other person’s point of view in. Fostering our ability to engage with others from our resiliency zone helps us honor our joined humanity, even when we are hurt and would have a tendency to attack, or to retreat.
C. Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©