I hope you had many moments of regulation this week. If you missed part 1 of this topic, you can read it here.
As a quick reminder, in last week’s post we covered three states of being we can experience in our nervous systems, understanding that many other systems also impact and make impressions on our bodies and minds.
A regulated state is a calm, comfortable, safe way of being in the world. It is the ideal place to find creativity, joy, connection, and balance. We often call this a “flow state”.
We can leave a regulated state and go into dysregulation for numerous reasons. Sometimes we put ourselves into dysregulation (think about people who love haunted houses and roller coasters!) and other times we feel pushed there or triggered into an uncomfortable state of being (think of getting to work and being hauled into the boss’ office and called out for making a mistake). Dysregulation is leaving a state of safety in both your body and mind.
Co-regulation is when we are able to regulate with another person, feel safe, heard, and supported.
As we continue to dig into how these concepts can support functional and comfortable relationships at work, it is important to know that the states of regulation and dysregulation are quite literally sometimes out of our control.
The reactions and responses of the body are based on evolutionary instinct and follow a predictable pathway that has evolved in the human brain over our entire story. As a lasting gift from our early ancestors, we have a fight/flight response that lives in the lower part of the brain and tells us when to move out of the way or act with precision and lightning speed in a crisis. In those moments you don’t stop to think – instinct leads the way and often you will hear everyday heroes say, “I didn’t stop to think, I just did what anyone else would do…”
Also embedded in our nervous systems from millions of years ago is the fawn or freeze/collapse response when experiences become so incredibly overwhelming our physical and phycological systems shut down. As with a fight/flight response, a freeze response is often not consciously chosen. In all these states of dysregulation – fight, flight, fawn, freeze – the body/mind is doing one thing: PROTECTING. Keeping you safe. If you are running (flight) you can’t get hurt, if you are freezing hopefully that bad thing will just go away and leave you alone, if you are fighting you are doing something to keep yourself safe. Your body and brain have big time safety features to protect from both physical and psychological harm (trauma).
So next time someone verbally snaps back, does something seemingly bizarre in a moment of stress, or is just sitting in a meeting staring out the window checked out and in a frozen state you can now ask a better question: is this person dysregulated and is their body/mind doing everything it can to protect?
It’s a game changing question, isn’t it? Instead of blaming and shaming for “inappropriate” behavior such as inattentiveness (freeze), bullying at work or starting drama (fight), bouncing constantly from one thing to another and then leaving to go have 27 smoke breaks (flight) or the co-worker who is constantly pleasing everyone to their own detriment (fawn), we can start to identify dysregulation amongst our peers.
Once you can recognize the shift from regulation to dysregulation and you know dysregulation looks like flight, fight, freeze or fawn … then what? You know you are going to encounter dysregulated people at your workspace due to many reasons discussed and it is your job to lead, supervise, support, and motivate them.
You’re going to start with self-regulation.
Think back to part I of the blog where I gave an easy and high-level example of caregivers and children. When caregivers (who are also leaders) are dysregulated, you can bet your boots the people they care for are not in good regulatory shape. It starts with you.
TRY THIS: Take some time on your leadership teams or alone to identify what makes YOU dysregulated and write down how your body feels in this state. Tired? Too much energy? Shaky? Numb? Once you can identify the actual sensations of dysregulation you have accessed a key.
Remember, we have less conscious control over our nervous systems where these states live. Our nervous systems operate without conscious thought – and thank goodness they do! Our nervous system governs physical things like breathing, reflexes, and swallowing – things that when we are physically well, we never need to think about. Our emotional states function similarly, in general they are unconscious. However, our nervous system offers us two gifts.
First, it operates perfectly in an unconscious state to keep us breathing and alive and, second, when we use awareness it allows us to achieve regulation on a more consistent basis through consciousness. The nervous system thrives when we understand it and work with it.
TRY THIS: Make a list of how you self-regulate. Be honest, the answer may be: “right now, not so great”. That’s amazing – what a springboard you have to jump from. Self-regulation begins in you. Look at your list of strategies and notice how many of them include your physical body. Many people list self-regulation strategies such as: making hot tea, get a massage, talk to a friend, journal, go for a run, play with the dog, go for a bike ride with the kids, swim, meditate, do yoga, scrapbook, pray. Using our bodies is a smart and effective way to regulate.
Once you are regulated, you are ready to co-regulate.
As a leader when you are self-regulated you are predictable, curious, and available for co-regulation with team members. In this state you automatically offer cues of safety with your body language, verbal language, and energy. From this place you can recognize dysregulation as a state that every human encounters – and sometimes needs support to transition from.
Taking this one step further means providing cues of safety to people in your space who are dysregulated. Cues of safety need to be discussed and offered based on personal needs. As I used to work with youth offenders, a cue of safety for me is a door in my sightline and never to my back. When I am put in an assigned seat with my back to the door my brain moves to fight or flight mode very quickly. For another person a cue of safety might be having access to low lightning because florescent bulbs trigger them into a dysregulated state. For some people a cue of safety might be gentle eye contact where for others that might feel very intimidating. Start asking the questions at work: how can we make our workspace physically, emotionally, and spiritually safe for everyone here?
Because safety equals regulation.
Understanding the biology of dysregulation demonstrates we are as much the same as we are different. As humans we all have the same far-off ancestors that were the building blocks to this most modern version of the brain. It’s the brains we have and the nervous systems we are getting to know that are leading the way home to ourselves and each other.
Work can be a dysregulating place – but it doesn’t have to be. There are a lot of people, problems, situations, and activities that demand our attention, and we can’t control our work lives any more than we can “control” our nervous systems. Some things will bring us out of regulation, that’s a certainty. The goal is never to stay regulated 100% of the time – that’d be superhuman! The path is to notice when we veer off into dysregulation and self/co-regulate as we are so adeptly learning to do. With deep respect and compassion for each other, we can walk these roads together, learning as we go ahead on the adventure we call being human.