Learning strategies for managing hypoarousal can help you more effectively respond to stress, improve your capacity for emotional self-regulation, and expand your window of tolerance. When we are in our window of tolerance—or optimal zone—we can respond to life’s demands and challenges with the ability to remain calm, think clearly, and successfully accomplish our day-to-day activities. Extreme stress or trauma can push us out of our window of tolerance, causing us to fall into a state of hypoarousal.
What Is Hypoarousal?
Hypoarousal is our freeze response and is typified by shutting down when faced with significant stress, adversity, or trauma. With hypoarousal, your level of arousal is too low and you fall below the window of tolerance. You can experience feelings of paralysis or a desire to withdraw. Physiologically, your breathing can become shallow and your blood pressure may lower. It can also impact your sleep and eating habits.
When you’re in a state of hypoarousal, you may feel emotionally numb, lack motivation, socially withdraw, and feel a sense of disconnection from your body and feelings. This type of emotional dysregulation—or the inability to effectively manage your emotional response—can be triggered by overwhelming stress, traumatic reminders or events, a perceived threat, or other life adversities.
Sometimes hypoarousal can be the result of a prolonged state of hyperarousal; under the constant duress of hyperarousal, we eventually shut down as a response to the pain.
When we’re hypoaroused, our family and friends may believe that we’re depressed, or that we’re disengaged and don’t care about much in our lives.
By learning to identify the symptoms of hypoarousal, we can begin to practice strategies that allow us to better regulate our emotions, strengthen our window of tolerance, and adopt healthier means of coping when faced with extreme stress or adversity.
Symptoms of Hypoarousal
The freezing or shutting down response of hypoarousal involves symptoms associated with a state of too little arousal when trying to navigate overwhelming feelings and stressful life situations, including:
- Feelings of numbness or emptiness
- Brain fog
- Exhaustion and fatigue
- Difficulty making decisions
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Inability to focus and concentrate
- Depersonalization or dissociation
- Headaches and nausea
- Shallow breathing or a low respiration rate
Becoming aware of both the symptoms and circumstances that may trigger hypoarousal provides an opportunity to more effectively manage your response and regulate your emotions.
Strategies to Manage Hypoarousal
Since there’s a sense of disconnection from your body and feelings as you’re shutting down with hypoarousal, the goal is to increase arousal. This enables you to return to your window of tolerance and, ultimately, adopt healthier coping skills.
Mindfulness-based practices and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) interventions are useful techniques for managing hypoarousal. When you’re experiencing hypoarousal, they can help you shift to a more alert, present state of mind and reconnect with your body and feelings. Some of the strategies for managing hypoarousal include:
- Paced breathing
- Engaging your senses
- Physical movement
- Creative arts
Your breathing can become shallow with hypoarousal, so try and pay attention as you inhale and exhale. Take deep, long breaths and exhale slowly, focusing on each breath. 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
Focus on mentally engaging your senses when you start to shut down. Try to describe three normal activities in great detail, for example, a meal that you like to prepare, including each step in the process and the aroma of the food as it’s cooking. Or try describing your environment in detail, including five things that you can see, touch, hear, taste, and smell.
Play a categories game. Think of famous people, animals, or places that begin with a certain letter of the alphabet. You can also read something aloud like a poem or excerpt from a favorite book.
Playing music or singing, listening to upbeat and stimulating music, or eating crunchy foods are other helpful ways to engage your senses and increase your arousal.
Physical movement does not need to be strenuous. Activities like standing up, walking around the room, or balancing on one leg can be beneficial.
Creative arts, such as drawing and painting, can be stimulating, allowing you to increase arousal and shift away from feeling shut down.
As you better understand your symptoms, you can also learn to gauge your sensations of hypoarousal, for example, rating them on a scale of zero to 10. This can assist you in both identifying and intervening in your emotional response.
Becoming aware of how you respond to extreme stress, managing hypoarousal, and remaining within your window of tolerance are all possible. As you try different strategies for managing hypoarousal, you may wish to use a combination of techniques to determine the most effective approach for you.
If you’d like to learn more about managing hypoarousal and how to improve your window of tolerance, please contact us.
We can help you identify the signs and symptoms that you’re moving out of your optimal zone for responding to stress and into a state of hypoarousal. We can also provide you with support and strategies for increasing your emotional tolerance and cultivating more life-affirming coping skills.