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  • Kelly Tennant

Processing and regulating your emotions - Part 2

In Part 1, I focused on top-down emotional regulation - using your thoughts and logic to process and regulate your emotional responses to events. Now, I'd like to focus on the other side of emotional regulation, bottom-up, which occurs in the subconscious parts of our brain, the limbic system and brain stem. These areas are sometimes called the "caveman" or "reptile" brain because they play a huge role in keeping us alive and acting instinctively to protect us from danger.

The bottom-up approach to emotional regulation identifies that your body will have an emotional reaction to an event before you're brain is able to consciously register it and process it logically. If the event is stressful, it triggers your "fight or flight" mode, in which a small part of your limbic system called your hypothalamus tells your adrenal glands (which sit on top of your kidneys) to dump tons of cortisol into your bloodstream. Cortisol is our body's main stress hormone and thus triggers a cascade of stress responses which we may feel as a racing heart, fast breathing, sweaty palms, tight muscles, or shaking. This is our body's way of telling us we're in danger and it will produce this same effect whether it's a physical danger, like being chased by a bear, or a psychological "danger", like speaking in front of a crowd. You can see now why we call this part of the brain the "caveman" brain, as it evolved early on to do a very important job and has stayed relatively the same since.

The key to bottom-up emotional regulation is recognizing that our bodies need to feel safe in order for us to be able to consciously regulate our emotions, which is a vulnerable experience. There are many ways to increase that feeling of safety in your body, and through trial and error, you'll find some that work for you.

I learned a new technique earlier today, called Boundary Outline, that I'd like to share with you:

Start small, just with your right hand.

Position your hand comfortably, either held just slightly in front of you at chest or stomach height, or resting in your lap.

Use your left hand to slowly squeeze, sweep, or tap your right hand - whichever feels best for you.

This touch communicates to your brainstem that your hand is safe and can be repeated on other parts of your body - your arms and legs, sweeping or tapping your chest or forehead. Experiment with it and see what calms you the most.

Notice what happens with your breath as you continue the safe touch.

Because this technique uses nothing but your own body, it can be used in the moment when you're stressed to help reduce your "fight or flight" response and allow your conscious brain the time it needs to logically think of a way to respond to a situation.

Other ways to process emotions bottom-up are to use grounding techniques, breath work, deep pressure (hugs, weighted blankets), movement (dance, exercise, yoga), and co-regulation - which is when another person is such a calming force that their calming energy spreads to us (I'll let you in on a little secret - this is why therapy offices are always so calming and cozy...we're masters of co-regulation!). For parents (especially those of highly sensitive, autistic, or ADHD kids), it pays to practice your own emotional regulation so you can co-regulate for your kids when they're feeling strong emotions or having a meltdown. Modeling good bottom-up regulation will help them develop the emotional coping skills they will need throughout their lives.

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