Almost every room in our house has lights on a dimmer switch. When we first moved in, this feature allowed us to set the brightness of our lighting to match the mood.
But once we transitioned from incandescent bulbs to LED's the dimmer became a nuisance. Our lights made buzzing sounds and they no longer dimmed - they either shone full blast or off.
Slowly but surely, we've updated all our dimmer switches to ones that are LED-compatible. And I learned the hard way what happens when you touch a live wire - zap! Luckily I wasn't harmed as a result.
The dimmer switch has become a common analogy to explain the way our nervous system works. It's not like a simple on-off switch because there's more nuance to the ways our nervous system engages and responds to stimuli. There are varying degrees of intensity and velocity present depending on the situation and one's capacity.
Our autonomic nervous system is managed by the primitive brain. It has two primary modes of operation. The sympathetic nervous system engages when we are activated by stress hormones. It manages our fight and flight threat responses.
The parasympathetic nervous system manages our rest and digest mood. It's engaged when we are feeling safe. Ironically, it's also engaged when we are in a threat response of freeze or appease.
Just because the sympathetic nervous system has become engaged by a trigger, doesn't mean we've lost control, AKA become dysregulated. And just because the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged doesn't mean we're regulated, or able to consciously and intentionally manage our responses.
But staying regulated while triggered doesn't just happen. Without time, energy and support to cultivate one's abilities to self-regulate it's like having the old dimmer switches in my house.
This is because our nervous systems haven't "kept up" with the pace of change and technological advancement in society. As a result, our reactions to everyday stressors tend to be disproportionate to the actual stress.
Getting worked up, screaming, cursing and flailing your arms at a car that cut you off in traffic doesn't help the situation. You could argue the potential fatality of a near accident warrants the reaction, yet the unsustainably high levels of stress hormones present in most people paint a different picture.
Letting oneself get too carried by near misses just perpetuates a cycle of unhealthy stress. It's like my lights buzzing because the dimmer switch wasn't built for LED bulbs. It's a waste of energy and a nuisance.
Luckily, we all have the to option to upgrade our internal dimmer switches.
While you can't buy a new internal dimmer switch at Home Depot, you can start by bringing your awareness to your embodied experiences.
Simply noticing when you feel worked up, frazzled, overwhelmed, stressed, disappointed, annoyed, etc. is a valuable first step.
You may experiment with paying attention to the thoughts you're having in those moments. I find it helpful to journal my thoughts down so I may see them on paper. I also ask my clients to describe their thoughts to me when they're triggered.
Shining the light of day on our thoughts takes their power away. You aren't actually reacting to the person cutting you off in traffic. You're reacting to the story you're telling yourself, "No one pays attention when they're driving anymore." "These stupid drivers are selfish jerks."
When in reality, the driver could have overlooked your presence accidentally because they have a blind spot from their spouse adjusting the mirrors in their car. And the driver is equally mortified at cutting you off (I may or may not be speaking from personal experience here).
Another step in deepening your awareness is noticing and naming the sensations you're experiencing in your body. Our physiology is such that our bodies react much more quickly than our conscious thoughts.
I have come to recognize a few different sensations in my body that signal when I'm triggered. I experience a sinking feeling, tightness in my jaw and hold my breath. Now that I notice those sensations, I can make a conscious choice to dim my reaction to match the situation.
Just like I needed to upgrade the dimmer switches in my house to adapt to new technology, we all must invest in learning how to better regulate our nervous systems in the 21st century. Doing so makes us better leaders, parents, partners and colleagues. It enables us to maintain control of how we respond to stressful situations so our intentions match our impact.
We work with leaders who care about their people, nervous system and all. Would you like to support your team to learn how to better regulate their nervous systems? Let's talk, schedule a 30 minute call with me.