Practicing strategies for decreasing hyperarousal can help you better manage stress, learn to self-regulate your emotions, and improve your window of tolerance. The window of tolerance is the optimal zone where we function most effectively in responding to the demands of life. We are calm, able to think clearly, and manage day-to-day activities. The impact of significant stress or trauma can push us out of our window of tolerance, leading to a state of hyperarousal.
What Is Hyperarousal?
Hyperarousal is our flight or fight response. You may feel anxious, panicked, agitated, or angry. When you’re in a state of hyperarousal and outside of your window of tolerance, it’s difficult to remain calm and function as usual. Physiologically, your heart may beat more rapidly, your muscles can tense, and your breathing may become shallow.
Learning to identify the symptoms of hyperarousal enables us to practice strategies that decrease hyperarousal and improve our window of tolerance.
Symptoms of Hyperarousal
Hyperarousal involves a collection of symptoms associated with a heightened state of alertness and anxiety. It’s also a primary symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) though you don’t need to have a diagnosis of PTSD to experience hyperarousal. The symptoms include:
- Feeling anxious, irritable, agitated, or angry
- Experiencing impulsivity
- Having difficulty concentrating or racing thoughts
- Being aggressive or having rageful outbursts
- Having trouble falling or staying asleep, or nightmares
- Being hypervigilant
- Startling easily or feeling on edge
- Constantly feeling in danger or unsafe
As you begin to understand the symptoms—as well as situations or circumstances that can trigger hyperarousal—you can intervene with techniques to decrease your hyperarousal and better regulate your emotional response.
Strategies to Decrease Hyperarousal
When your emotions seem out of control or overwhelming, you can use a variety of skills to lower the intensity. These techniques are mostly based on mindfulness-based practices and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) interventions. They can help you feel calmer and allow you to utilize healthier coping skills when faced with extreme stress or adversity. Here are some strategies to help you decrease hyperarousal:
- Paced breathing
- Engaging your senses
- Challenging your thoughts
- Intense exercise
- Paired muscle relaxation
- Spending time in nature
- Journaling or creative arts
Pay attention to your breathing. Slow, deep, long breaths can help you maintain a sense of calm or help you return to a calmer state. Try to slow your breathing down to five or six breaths per minute, so your combined inhalations and exhalations should last about 10 to 12 seconds. You may find that a timer or app is helpful for your breathing exercises.
Engaging your senses
Try engaging your senses when you start to feel overwhelmed or anxious. This five-step exercise can be beneficial in keeping you grounded.
1. Acknowledge FIVE things you see around you. It could be a pen, a spot on the ceiling, or anything in your surroundings.
2. Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you. It could be your hair, a pillow, or the ground under your feet.
3. Acknowledge THREE things you hear. This could be any external sound like a passing car or a dog barking. Focus on things you can hear outside of your body.
4. Acknowledge TWO things you can smell. Maybe you are in your office and smell a pencil, or maybe you are in your bedroom and smell a pillow.
5. Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste. What does the inside of your mouth taste like—gum, coffee, or the sandwich from lunch?
You can also try grounding the senses by taking a warm bath, using a weighted blanket, listening to calming music, or eating creamy comfort foods.
Challenging your thoughts
If you find yourself having persistent negative, extreme or catastrophic thoughts, challenging your thought process can be useful. Are you jumping to conclusions or responding to your situation based on feelings rather than facts? With hyperarousal, it’s difficult to think clearly, so try to consider some of the facts that don’t support your thoughts.
Engaging in physical activity like vigorous cardio/aerobic exercise de-escalates intense emotions. Ideally, try to exercise for 20 minutes or more, but if that’s not possible, do what you can.
Paired muscle relaxation
Paired muscle relaxation is a useful stress management technique when you begin to notice the signs of hyperarousal. Practice tensing your muscles as you breathe in for five to six seconds. Notice that feeling. Then relax them as you breathe out, paying attention to how that feels as you do. Notice the difference between the feeling of tension and the feeling of relaxation. Go through each muscle group in the body and tense then relax each one. As you relax a muscle group, say to yourself, “relax.”
Spending time in nature
Spending time in nature is also a very helpful strategy. Take a walk, sit in the sunshine, or make time to garden. Engage in outdoor activities that you find relaxing and enjoyable.
Journaling or creative arts
Intense emotions like anger can be very challenging. Try expressing your feelings by journaling or other creative arts, such as drawing or painting.
As you become more aware of how you respond to extreme stress, you can practice certain techniques to counter your reactions and remain within your optimal zone of arousal. You may try different strategies for decreasing hyperarousal to see which ones are most effective for you. A common approach is to use a combination of techniques.
If you’d like to learn more about hyperarousal and how to improve your window of tolerance, please contact us.
We can help you become mindful of the cues and symptoms that you’re moving out of your optimal zone and into a state of hyperarousal, and provide support and strategies for increasing your emotional tolerance.