By Guest Contributor: Mark Scheffelmair
It is important to understand the nature of stress responses, what is occurring physiologically in our bodies, and effective tools to manage and support our sensory and nervous systems.
When we are in our Window of Tolerance, we feel a sense of stability. We fluctuate like a river within our window: a flowing state of regulation balanced in our optimal state. This allows us to meet the demands of life in successful and meaningful ways. When our stress level begins to increase past our ability to cope effectively, we either begin to escalate or shut down, which we call hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal states.
Hyper-Arousal and Hypo-Arousal
When we enter a hyper-arousal state, we may notice feelings like anger, irritability, hyper vigilance, or anxiety. We may also notice racing thoughts, restlessness, or a general state of chaos. These experiences arise due to the deactivation of our prefrontal cortex. Our prefrontal cortex oversees executive functioning, impulse control, attention, and critical thinking, among others. Having a deactivation in the prefrontal cortex creates significant challenges in a workplace where the pace and demands can be high.
When we enter a hypo-arousal state, we may notice feelings of overwhelm, emotionally numb, exhaustion, or depression. A decrease in motivation, a collapse of body language, or dissociation can also occur. Many individuals have been labelled as lazy because of their bodies have entered a hypo-aroused state.
Window of Tolerance
An important note for us all to remember is that we have limited to no control over these physiological responses. A fight/flight/freeze state is activated by a threat or a perceived threat. We all have different lived experiences which provide us all a unique set of triggers, stressors, and baseline window of tolerance. A healthy individual may have a large Window of Tolerance allowing them to manoeuvre through varying types of stress, while an individual who has experienced trauma or consistent threats to their safety, may have a narrower Window of Tolerance. Some individuals may have a large window for work related events such as high workloads, deadlines, long hours, and external pressures while having a narrow window for interpersonal stress, conflict, or stress related to their home life; and vice versa.
Understanding our own Window of Tolerance is essential for our own ability to regulate our emotions, manage our bodies stress responses, and maintain the balance we need to achieve our ideal level of work and success. In a workplace, there are restrictions to what we can control. This limit of control affects our Window of Tolerance which triggers some unique nervous system responses. So, lets get a little deeper into what is happening in our bodies.
To maintain our optimal state, we must maintain what is called a ‘felt sense of safety’. A scientific framework defining how to achieve this biologically and psychologically is called Polyvagal Theory. This theory focuses on how stress impacts our vagus nerve which regulates much of our physiological systems. There is strong evidence that having a feeling of safety has measurable underlying neurophysiological substrates.
The feeling of safety and our need to feel safe is functionally our bodies speaking through our autonomic nervous system. This system influences our mental health, physical health, social relationships, cognitive processing, and behavioural repertoires. A workplace is dependent on cooperation and trust to function effectively; however, cooperation and trust cannot be developed without a felt sense of safety.
Polyvagal Theory provides an understanding of how neural circuits can downregulate our nervous system from threat reactions to functionally neutralize defensive systems like the fight/flight/freeze responses by communicating cues of safety. Basically, when we feel safe, the nervous system supports homeostatic functions of health, growth, and restoration.
There is a three tiered hierarchy in Polyvagal Theory including the ventral vagal nerve, sympathetic nervous system, and dorsal vagal nerve.
- The ventral vagal is of the parasympathetic nervous system (a network of nerves that relaxes your body after periods of stress or danger) which is active when we feel safe and social. We may observe our heart rates are regulated, we feel safe, peaceful, and happy. This is when we are optimally active and engaged and in our ‘felt sense’ of safety. Our best work is completed here and ensuring our environments and support systems are setup in the workplace to maintain this state is essential.
- When stress increases, we enter our sympathetic nervous system (responds to dangerous or stressful situations). This may result in the activation of the fight or flight systems where we are mobilized with our hearts racing, our breathing becomes short and shallow, adrenaline kicks in, and feelings of anxiety increase. The sympathetic nervous system stays in control until the stressor is over. Our ability to focus or produce quality work is highly impacted by this state. It may be short lived such as when we hear a loud and unexpected noise and our heart rate increase, vigilance increases, and breathing changes until we find out that a box fell off a shelf, and then our system calms. But it can be long as well, such as when we are in a workplace of high conflict, aggressive communication, and shame or blame based problem-solving approaches. In this environment, the stressor is always present, so our nervous system may keep us in this state indefinitely.
- At the bottom of the hierarchy is the dorsal vagal branch. When our nervous system is here, we often feel immobilized with our energy low, shallow breathing, or disassociation. When the stress on our nervous system becomes too much to handle, the dorsal vagal branch takes control as a primal survival system and shuts us down until the threat neutralizes. This could be observed as having severe difficulties concentrating, avoidance of work, or lethargic behaviours.
Many of these actions are unconscious and determined, in part, by life experiences such as trauma. Neuroception is the process of your autonomic nervous system unconsciously scanning for cues of danger, threat, and safety. We can all move through these systems each day and it is important to learn about ourselves to understand what our system needs to feel safe or achieve a sense of safety when dysregulation is experienced. There are two primary ways I like to utilize to promote ongoing regulation.
Sensory regulation is one approach to regulating our bodies. The stressor or challenges we face may not always be able to be solved. Providing sensory input, or decreasing sensory input, can ensure our nervous system is getting what it needs to be in its optimal state. To feel calm and safe, it is essential to know what sensory system works best for us. Do we need calming music, earplugs, or a quiet space? Do we need to change our lighting, get natural light, have plants, photos, or objects that bring us calm? Do we need a diffuser or essential oil necklace to bring the scent we enjoy? Do we need fidgets or objects to touch that are alerting or calming? Do we need some movement, exercise, or heavy work (activity that pushes or pulls against the body, like wall pushes)? Do we need some inversion, balance, swinging, or spinning? These seven questions help meet the needs of our hearing, sight, smell, tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular sensory systems.
Co-regulation is another effective approach to finding safety and the optimal state of arousal. This is our nervous system ‘sensing’ another individual’s regulation through subtle body responses, verbal and non-verbal behaviours, and energy. When we are unable to regulate our own system, help from a trusted and regulated individual leads us to return to a state of safety and connection.
Regulation & Leadership
It is important we know who our safe people are in the workplace. It is also very important that individuals in leadership roles understand the importance of their own regulation when interacting with their employees. Particularly during conversations or interactions that bring stress, ensuring the leaders ventral vagus system is present will promote a regulate and productive interaction. Knowing ourselves and knowing our workplaces brings a foundation of productivity. The environment can promote a sense of safety or stress. A conscious and collaborative approach to environmental changes can increase safety which increases an optimal state or arousal which increases productivity and effectiveness. Interpersonal approaches grounded in regulation foster trusting relationships which can result in increased staff retention. A felt sense of safety in a workplace is paramount to effective teamwork and holistic outcomes.
About the CONTRIBUTOR
Mark Scheffelmair is an Inclusive Child Care Coordinator and Behaviour Consultant with Key Connections Consulting in Lethbridge, Alberta. He specializes in supporting early learning programs, neurodiverse children and their families, and he provides psychoeducational presentations across Southern Alberta.