How To Actually Calm Down (Part 2) - Being Calm Is A Skill
Welcome back to our series on How To Actually Calm Down!
In Part One we discussed:
- the biology of stress
- the four stress responses
- what nervous system dysregulation is
And if dysregulation is the foundation of chronic stress, anxiety and exhaustion? It means that regulation is the key to wellbeing.
To be calm, you need to help your nervous system become more regulated.
Calm Is A Skill You Learn
Calm is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system. And activating this calm is a learned skill, called self-regulation.
Professors in social work and education from Lakehead University describe self-regulation like this:
“Successful self-regulation is not something we are born with; rather, it develops slowly throughout childhood and into the mid-twenties as parts of the brain fully develop and connect.”
When a child is born, they are hardwired to survive. But babies are extremely vulnerable. Therefore they are very sensitive to threats.
Which is why babies cry. They cry because they have very little control over their own nervous system. And they cry to receive reassurance from a kind, reliable caregiver.
As the caregiver soothes the baby, they help the infant’s nervous system regulate. This is called co-regulation.
Over time, with consistent co-regulation, a child will grow up learning to self-soothe or self-regulate.
However, we can have trouble self-regulating if we haven’t been shown how.
Even if you had loving parents and a stable home environment, you may not have learned self-regulation.
Our parents are fallible human beings. They may not have always been present and attentive. They may have struggled to self-regulate themselves.
And this lack of co-regulation can be traumatic to an infant or child.
How Trauma Relates to Anxiety (and why any trauma matters)
When we think of trauma, we often think of the big things.
War, violence, abuse or neglect. Survivors of big trauma need tremendous compassion and support for the debilitating events they have endured.
Trauma can also be bullying, discrimination or persecution. Systems of oppression are traumatising for all marginalised groups. Especially Black people, Indigenous or First Nations people, and People Of Colour (BIPOC).
However, trauma can also be an accumulation of smaller overwhelming events. It could come in the form of the loss of a loved one or financial stress. Medical intervention or chronic illness can also be traumatic.
But trauma isn’t about the event itself: it’s about how your body processed it.
Trauma is a fundamental feeling of threat. A perceived lack of safety.
It is anything that overwhelms your ability to cope. And there’s a lot that can overwhelm a child.
And without consistent soothing from a regulated caregiver? A child may grow up with a model of the world that is unsafe, inconsistent and uncertain.
Trauma is always about the impact, rather than the events themselves.
Ongoing stress in childhood can lead to chronic dysregulation. As an adult, chronic dysregulation can result in mental health issues. Such as anxiety, c-PTSD, attachment issues and depression.
Or perhaps your trauma came later in life.
You may have had self-regulation skills when you were younger. But then overwhelming life events led to chronic dysregulation.
However, there is hope!
Why Overcoming Anxiety Is Possible
Even if you haven’t been shown how to become calm as a child? You can teach it to yourself.
You can learn the ability to self-regulate by experiencing calm. And the more you self-regulate? The more you can become and stay calm more often.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change the structure of its neural network.
Your brain can form new neural pathways. It can generate new neurons. Your brain can even rearrange or remove existing connections. In other words, neuroplasticity is your ability to change.
Because your brain and nervous system are highly adaptable. It means you can improve your emotional self-regulation over time.
You can learn to become calm. It just takes practice.
Terms to Remember
- Regulated: when the nervous system is easily and effectively able to switch from stress to calm
- Dysregulated: when the nervous system is unable to match incoming stimulus with the appropriate response
- Co-regulation: learning to become regulated with a soothing presence or caregiver (parent, partner, friend or therapist)
- Self-regulation: the ability to self soothe and process emotions appropriately
- Anxiety: chronic dysregulation leading to an inability to respond appropriately to perceived danger