4 Ways to Regulate Distress
4 Neurobiology-Informed Ways to Quickly Regulate Your Distress
In our daily lives, we often encounter situations that provoke distress, causing our emotional responses to spike or dip beyond what feels comfortable or manageable. This is known as moving outside of our ‘window of tolerance’ – the optimal zone where we can effectively process and integrate experiences. When we find ourselves outside of this window, it is essential to regulate our distress before making decisions, engaging in conversations, or taking action. This not only helps us avoid impulsive or ineffective choices but also promotes clearer thinking, better communication, and healthier relationships. Thankfully, neurobiology – the study of the nervous system – offers us several strategies to effectively regulate our distress and return to our window of tolerance. Here are four of them:
1. Move Your Body
Physical movement can significantly influence our emotional state. This is because movement stimulates the production of endorphins – neurotransmitters that act as natural mood elevators and painkillers. Additionally, movement engages the motor cortex of the brain, which can help shift the brain’s focus away from distressing thoughts and feelings. So, whether it’s a brisk jog, a dance break, or a few yoga poses, moving your body can interrupt the distress cycle and prompt your nervous system to return to a calmer state.
2. Change Your Temperature
Changing your body’s temperature can have a potent effect on your nervous system. This is linked to the phenomenon of ‘thermal regulation’ – our body’s process of maintaining its core internal temperature. When you expose your body to different temperatures, it triggers a series of responses in the autonomic nervous system, which controls body functions like heart rate, digestion, and body temperature. For instance, a warm bath might trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and reducing feelings of distress. Conversely, a cold shower can activate the sympathetic nervous system, creating a sense of alertness and vitality. Cold temperatures work best for quickly regulating your distress and nervous system. This can be anything from splashing cold water on your face, taking a cold shower or even holding an ice cube in your hand.
3. Shock Your Tastebuds
Our sense of taste, governed by our gustatory system, is closely linked to our emotions and mood. When you shock your tastebuds with an intense flavour like a sour lemon or spicy pepper, it stimulates the insular cortex (the area of the brain responsible for taste perception), diverting its attention away from distressing stimuli. This sensory distraction gives your nervous system a chance to recalibrate, reducing the intensity of distress. We recommend carrying some sour candy in your bag, or some hot sauce to use at any time!
4. Release Tension
Physical tension is a common response to distress as the body prepares to respond to a perceived threat. This is a result of the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, part of our body’s fight, flight, or freeze response. By consciously releasing this tension – through deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or even a cathartic yell – we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, signalling to our brain that the threat has passed. This helps the body shift back to a calmer state of rest and digest.
Remember, it’s normal to feel distressed, and it’s powerful to know you can influence your own neurobiology to manage that distress. By incorporating these strategies into your life, you can help regulate your distress and return to a state of balance and calm. And while everyone is different and these strategies might not work for everyone, we invite you to experiment with them and see what works best for you. Share your experiences and insights with us in the comment section below.