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  • Writer's pictureNaomi Wong

Conquering life with Self-Regulation.

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

My emotions got the better of me. Why did I have to act that way? I tried to tell you! Look what you made me do? (Echoing this famous phrase from Taylor Swift’s song)

In many ways, we can draw many parallels between our daily emotional journey to journey at sea. Just like the captain of the ship is bound by unpredictable weather, we are bound by the unpredictability of various stressors thrown at us in our daily lives. As the captain, his main job is to keep the vessel safe and get to this destination unscathed. Similarly, we have that same task of navigating our way through this daily emotional journey and get to our final destination safe and sound.

While this abstract analogy seems fair, it is challenging to know how we can keep ourselves ‘together’ for this daily emotional journey. The captain can rely on situational awareness and experience to navigate the current seas and can get ready his vessel and his crew based on the weather forecast.

So how do we navigate a sea full of stressors, both in the moment (the current seas) and in anticipation of the moment (weather that was forecasted)?

Fortunately, there are ideas surrounding how we can utilize self-regulation and cope with stress 1) in the moment and 2) in anticipation of the moment. We will dive into each of these ideas separately.

In the moment

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Yerkes-Dodson Law Bell Curve

If we were to plot our own arousal level on this Yerkes-Dodson Law bell curve, we will notice as we encounter some stress, our whole-body tenses up, our heart rate goes up. The muscles in our face, shoulders, arms, and legs are getting ready for action, while blood to our digestive system reduces. This motivates us positively arousing our brain and body. This increases our attention and interest as observed at the yellow spot on the Yerkes-Dodson Law bell curve. We will be able to think faster, remember facts better, attend better and communicate our ideas better. This focused frame of mind is a comfortable and happy state. At this moment, we are experiencing the state of ‘flow’; there is a match between our abilities and challenges faced.

It will come a time (every 90 mins) when our brain signals to us that we are moving from a from higher to lower alertness by sending signals. This is when we become restless and lose focus. If we continue to push forward in our quest, we may ignore these circadian basic rest-activity cycle (BRAC) signals through the use of caffeine, sugar or other means to keep us awake. As we floor the accelerator and push our arousal level up, we may soon be looking at is the top of the curve, that is where the state of flow starts to end. Like a roller coaster ride, it is not quite possible to remain at the top of the roller coaster track, what awaits us is a quick descent.

Why can’t we keep ourselves at the peak for long?

This is because while flow is a happy and comfortable state, it is also a high energy-high tension state. While in that happy state, we have expended a significant amount of energy and the tension in our body has built up. This leaves our bodies primed to be in a reactive state while having little amount of energy to deal with the upcoming stimuli/challenge. When we are in this low energy-high tension state, a challenge (while require us to expend a considerable amount of energy to meet the demands of the challenge) may be too much for us and we are very vulnerable to being dysregulated. When we are dysregulated, our thinking part of our brain (Prefrontal Cortex) becomes highly suppressed, and this is not the optimal brain condition for logical thinking and making sound decisions. When we are at this state, we can give in to our impulses too quickly which will trap us in a stress cycle (i.e., overeating to replenish energy only to have our pancreas go into over-drive to keep the glucose levels in the bloodstream within a non-toxic range).

Perhaps, if we can heed our body’s natural signal to take a break every 90 minutes, we can keep our arousal in check. In doing so, we can keep in that much-desired state of flow for a longer period, keep our logical thinking Prefrontal Cortex online to work in our favour, we are less likely to ‘‘lose’’ it.

But that’s not all there is to it!

So… what can we do to ensure that we can keep being this better version of ourselves?

In anticipation of the moment

We live in a hectic modern world. We move from stressor to stressor and often not knowing that we have become overstressed and how we can truly rest and recover. This self-awareness is the steppingstone to helping us recognise the stressors and reduce them. Everyone is unique. What helps one individual reduce stress may not work for another. (For example, an individual may find yoga calming while another may find that jogging help them to relax). It’s about managing our stress in a way that promotes restoration and resilience. When we truly restore energy, we can then manage our stress better.

Just like the captain who will only set sail after he has read and understood the weather forecast, we should also be mindful and take stock of how much (energy or emotional availability) we have and what challenges we can overcome today. We can only lend our calm to the people around when we have calm in us. This is why activities that promotes restoration should not be belittled.

Self-reg is a journey. If we are conscious about practices around reducing stress 1) in the moment and 2) in anticipation of the moment. I hope we can have more victorious moments in the face of Taylor Swift’s song - Look what you made me do?


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