In a stressful world, all of us find ourselves in moments that are too much for us to handle. We start to “lose it” — our confidence, our cool, our train of thought. The good news is there are some easy ways to get re-regulated and get back in control. Read on to learn more about regulation and how to use sensory strategies to improve your life.
The most basic definition of arousal regulation refers to your energy levels and your ability to change your level of energy to match the situation you are in. A low arousal state (see Figure 1) occurs when you are tired, bored, and are either not able or not required to exert much energy. A high arousal state occurs when you are stressed, upset, and are exerting a lot of mental and/or physical energy. There are appropriate times to be in low arousal (first thing in the morning, late at night when it is time for bed). There are also times where it is appropriate to be in high arousal (in high-performance or dangerous, life-threatening situations).
However, when you drop into a low arousal state at the wrong time, such as during an important meeting or exam, you need to shift your arousal level to a more alert or regulated state. And, when you find your arousal getting too high at the wrong time, such as during a conversation with your partner, you need to know how to calm down and get re-regulated before you “lose it.”
Finding the right sensory hacks takes time and practice. The best way to explore if the sensory strategies below are helpful is to try them when you are already fairly calm and relaxed. Some strategies may shift your arousal state right away. Some may have a delayed effect. You may need to try some of them several times to decide if they work for you. As you experiment, notice if the strategy tends to raise (increase) your arousal, lower (decrease) your arousal, or if it can do both depending on the situation. You may find that you already use some of the strategies below.
Hack #1: Get your head lower than your heart
This strategy works by initially increasing blood flow to the head, which signals your body to lower your blood pressure. This, in turn, is a hack to calm your nervous system and lower your arousal level.
Important Note: Do not attempt this strategy if you have high blood pressure. Keep your neck safe and protected and do not apply pressure through your head if you have neck problems. Stop immediately if you experience nausea, dizziness, light-headedness, or pain.
Some ideas: standing forward fold, inversions, child’s pose (from yoga); headstands, handstands, kneeling on the ground and touching your forehead to the floor; lying in prone (on your stomach) or supine (on your back) over a large exercise ball and shifting your weight forward onto your head and/or hands.
Bonus tip: If it’s not an appropriate time to get your head below your heart, try putting some gentle downward pressure on the top of your head or along your forehead, especially near the upper bridge of your nose, right above your eyebrow line. Both strategies tap into powerful bundles of nerves that send calming signals to the brain.
Hack #2: Hum
Humming, especially non-melodic, long, and low sounds produced deep in your throat creates strong vibrations that work to internally massage and soothe your nerves.
Hack #3: Bean bag tapping
Any soft, small, weighted object will work for this strategy. A sock filled with rice, a TY Beanie Baby, or a cornhole bean bag all work well.
Hold the bean bag (or other soft, weighted object) in your right hand and gently but firmly tap from your left upper back/ shoulder, down the outside of your left arm, up the inside of your left arm, across your collarbones/ upper chest, then switch hands. Repeat the process across your right upper back/ shoulder, down the outside of your right arm, and up the inside of your right arm. You can continue this cycle back and forth or move to your lower body.
To tap your lower body, hold the bean bag (or other soft, weighted object) in your right hand and gently but firmly tap from your left hip down the outside of your left leg, across the top of your left foot, and up the inside of your left leg. Switch hands, and repeat the process beginning at your right hip, down the outside of your right left, and up the inside of your right leg. You may find it helpful to tap along your lower back and buttocks one side at a time, or, hold a weighted object in each hand while standing, twisting side-to-side, allowing the weight of the objects in your hands to alternately tap your lower back and buttocks as you twist.
Hack #4: Put pressure on the “button” on the roof of your mouth
There is another powerful bundle of nerves on the roof of your mouth. You can press on the roof of your mouth or increase the pressure on the inside of your mouth by sucking while pressing upward with the tongue. A small, hard candy, such as a mint or lollipop can help you apply even more pressure, but is not necessary. This is why many young children find thumb-sucking or sucking on a pacifier so soothing.
Hack #5: Acupressure
Acupressure has traditionally been used as a healing methodology provided by trained practitioners. It usually involves applying sustained pressure to sensitive points along the energy meridians of the body. However, sustained pressure in any tender spot of the body (especially the hands and feet) can be a powerful way to ground you in your sensations and calm racing thoughts. Self-administered acupressure has also shown promise as a way to reduce deliberate self harm in some patients.
To do acupressure on yourself, you can either use a variety of self-massage tools or simply use your thumb(s) and/or finger(s) to apply pressure. The key to using acupressure is to feel around until you find a tender spot and then apply gentle but firm pressure to that spot for several seconds. Some spots to try:
1. The soft space between your thumb and first finger, about a half-inch into your palm.
2. The nail bed and/or cuticle of your fingers and toes.
3. The webbed spaces between your fingers and toes.
4. The base of your thumb where it meets your wrist.
5. The middle of your forearm about three fingers-widths away from your wrist.
6. The back of the neck where your skull connects to your spine.
7. The ears.
Hack #6. Exercise.
This “hack” is probably not a surprise. Exercise has been shown to be an excellent way to boost your mood or recover from stress. But what you might not know is how much intensity matters. What I am referring to is not the amount of calories you burn, but the strength of the sensation(s) provided by various forms of exercise.
When the intent of exercising is to change your arousal level, you will find that engaging in exercise that provides you with strong, enjoyable sensory input has the most impact on your regulation. Some examples of forms of exercise that can provide a lot of body-based sensory input are:
1. Chin-ups, monkey bars, or hanging on a bar or door frame from your hands
2. Leg presses, lunges, or squats
3. Lat pull downs, rowing, or butterflies/pec flies
4. High-intensity interval training, CrossFit, or Orange Theory routines
5. Hot and Yin-style yoga classes
6. Running, swimming, or cycling
Bonus Sensory Hacks
There are many ways you can use your body to tell your brain you are okay. Below are several more ideas of ways to tap into sensations to adjust your arousal throughout the day.
- Mindful movement
- Deep breaths
- Take a big yawn
- Chew on something (give your jaw a work out)
- Squeeze something
- Lie down
- Close your eyes
- Bounce or jump up and down
- Shake body parts (head, arms, legs) or all of your body
- Use weighted objects (blanket, lap pad)
- Go outside for a change of scenery, some sunshine, and fresh air
- Find a small space or lean against something like a wall, door frame, or piece of furniture
- Listen to music (or better yet, make music!)
- Seek out cold or warmth
- Take off your shoes (and socks!)
- Touch an interesting texture with your hands or feet and really notice what you’re touching