This week we continue to explore ‘Resilient Voice' through the foundation of a regulated nervous system.
Have you ever tried to speak only to realize that your throat's closed off, your mind’s gone blank, and you can’t get the words out? Or perhaps, you got so worked up that you found yourself yelling or storming out of a room for no apparent reason.
Both of these scenarios exemplify a nervous system on the defense. When we face a threat, real or imaginary, a message is sent to the limbic system of our brain and it responds by either activating the sympathetic (fight or flight) or parasympathetic (freeze response) systems. In a regulated state or within our ‘window of tolerance’ these active and calming energies are balanced. In this optimal state we can access our prefrontal cortex and effectively think, manage, and deal with our environment in a resourceful way. However, when our defence systems are activated into hyper/hypo arousal we lose these abilities.
In the short term hyper/hypo aroused states will effect our ability to communicate in the moment. Ideally, once our nervous system equalizes we regain access to a clear voice and mind. However, if we are unable to effectively discharge the energy from these defence states it accumulates as trauma. Unresolved trauma may appear as chronic challenges that affect our voice and communication such as; anxiety, depression, psychosomatic and behavioural challenges, hyper-sensitivity, throat tension, weak voice, rigidity, close mindedness, chronic agitation, numbing, and a narrowed window of tolerance.Thus, defence states effect our voice and communication on two levels. First, the ‘in the moment’ reaction when these states are activated and second, the residual effects that these and other defence experiences may create.
When we appreciate how impactful our nervous system is on our ability to communicate we can forgive our reactive responses and focus our attention on understanding how to regulate these states more effectively
Understanding Fight, Flight, & Freeze
In fight, flight, and freeze states the body is responding to a perceived threat. In all three of these scenarios we have lost our sense of safety and have limited access to our rational mind. Regardless of which state is activated the first three steps of regulation are;
Establish a sense of safety: You may remind yourself you are safe, or move to a location where you feel safe.
Remind yourself this is a natural response that will pass: We are not able to think our way out of these defence responses. By reminding ourselves that it is natural we can allow our system the time it needs to equalize.
Become present to your breath body: Presence and focused breathing will help our body find equilibrium
*Please note that if you are dealing with chronic or severe challenges; feelings of terror, chronic hopelessness or dissociation, or complex trauma it is best to work with a skilled professional. Healing is possible when done in a gentle way that does not re-traumatize the system.
Hyper-arousal (Fight or Fight)
The fight/flight response is activated through the sympathetic nervous system. The adrenal glands activate and release powerful chemicals into our blood stream to give our muscles maximum power to fight off the threat or get away! The goal is to survive and return to safety either through fight or escape.
How might this impact our communication?
We become so agitated or angry we can’t listen
We feel the urge to act violently or run away
We become belligerent
We yell or name call
We instigate a fight for no reason
Our inner dialogue loudly tells how “I can’t do this!” or screams “Get away from here!”
We storm out of the room
A little heat and passion can be fuel for an incredible speech or interesting conversation. However, if we lose control, blow up, or become belligerent others are likely to dismiss us, become defensive themselves, and/or discount what was said before we became reactive.
If we catch the indicators of fight/flight early on we may be able to harness this activated energy in a positive direction. These initial signs are the same for both fear and excitement. By shifting our perception of the situation away from fear and into a more positive context we can regulate this energy.
For example shifting our self talk from "This is terrifying" to “I’m excited”, or "How dare they say that" to, “This could be a good debate” may shift our defensive reaction into positive engagement.
Early Signs of Hyper-arousal
increased heart rate
increase in temperature
Signs we are in Fight/Flight
Strong sense of anxiety, fear, anger
Strong desire to fight
Want to run away and escape
Belligerence and aggressive behaviour
Regulating a Hyper-aroused State
Take deep breaths and extend the exhale (purse your lips to better control the breath)
Frame the situation in a positive context
Pause: Give yourself time to calm down. (i.e. say “Give me a moment to take that in”)
Tone: Exhale and tone different vowel sounds (Ahhhhhh & Mmmmmm can be particularly helpful)
Burn it off: exercise to burn off the residual energy
Hypo-arousal (Freeze & Immobilize)
When the fight/flight response is deemed ineffective or the threat is too overwhelming the nervous system switches into the parasympathetic system and immobilization or ‘freeze’ state occurs. At this point the brain releases endogenous opioids to create a separation from pain and a sense of disassociation from the body.
How might this impact our communication?
We blank out
We can’t seem to speak
Our throat closes up
Our body goes stiff
We feel disconnected from our body
We try and disappear
Many individuals feel embarrassed or blame themselves when they go into a ‘freeze’ response. “Why didn’t I fight back? Say something? Do something.” However, the reality is that if you were in this state you were physically unable to act differently. The good news is that we can learn to regulate this system and even overcome a more embedded sense of ‘freeze’ (i.e. being reclusive, fearing social interactions, feeling unable to speak up or ask for what we need) with practice.
When you notice the beginning stages of hypo-arousal you might be able to shift it by activating your energy. Movement, dance, singing, and self expressive practices can help re-activate your system. If you are in a conversation you can engage with your whole body, feel your body language, and use your hands when you speak.
Early Signs of Hypo-arousal
Increased or slowed heart rate
Feeling some tightness in throat
Holding our breath
Feeling self conscious
A sense of ‘blah’ or numbness
Signs we are in Freeze Response
Unable to speak
Unable to think
Body goes stiff
Regulating a Hypo-aroused State
Take a deep breaths in and out (equal inhale to exhale)
Connect to your body through movement; engage your muscles, stomp your feet, shake your whole body, stretch
Exhale out sounds of emotions; grunt, sigh, tone
Connect to you voice: Sing or speak
Say your emotion out loud or to yourself: i.e. I feel sad/frustrated/numb
Actively engage as possible
A resilient voice rests on our ability to remain within our ‘Window of Tolerance’. When we are in a hyper or hypo-aroused states our ability to express ourselves effectively is limited. The energy of these defence states can accumulate in the body and create chronic challenges in communication.
As we learn to regulate our nervous system we simultaneously gain access to a more clear and resilient voice. Re-establishing a sense of safety, connecting to our breath and body, and remembering that this state will pass can all help us move through a hyper/hypo aroused state more smoothly. With practice we can learn to notice the early stages of these states and adjust our behaviour to regulate our nervous system before we lose control.
Ongoing practices, such as vocal toning, singing, and effective communication skills all help in regulating our nervous system and help us cultivate a stronger and more resilient voice. In next week’s blog we will focus on the power of singing and devotion to regulate the nervous system, process our experiences, and build inner strength. In the following weeks we will investigate communication techniques that help us cultivate the confidence and fortitude to speak our truth, stand up for ourselves and others, and engage in meaningful conversation with a clear and resilient voice.
Daniel Siegal, The Neurobiology of We
Capstone treatment Centre, The Basics on Trauma
Peter A Levine, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma
Jamie Ball,‘Anxious’ or ‘excited’? How to find your stress sweet spot, Irish Times, Aug 29,2017