Building Your Self-Regulation Toolboxes |

5 min read

This post is part two of a series.

In part one of this series, I shared the first step and tool you can employ to create a robust psychological foundation for yourself: a “Healthy Mind Platter,” based on the work of Dan Siegel.

I hope that the prompts and examples I shared encouraged you to come up with some realistic, practical, and implementable strategies you can use to support your own mental health on a more regular basis.

Below, I’ll detail the second tool to support your emotional regulation abilities: your own personal toolboxes for those times when you find yourself in hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal.

Develop Your Self-Regulation Toolboxes

After we’ve developed our “Healthy Mind Platters” and taken concrete and practical steps to ensure we’re meeting those seven needs on a regular basis, the second part of the work to help us widen our Window of Tolerance and increase our own self-regulation abilities is cultivating and calling upon a wide array of tools when we find ourselves outside of the optimal arousal zone and in the hyper- or hypo-arousal states. (The hyperarousal zone is marked by heightened emotions such as anger, panic, irritability, anxiety, and an overactive fight-or-flight response, and the hypoarousal zone involves shutting down emotionally, experiencing numbness, depression, withdrawal, and reduced physiological activity.)

Developing rich, robust, personalized toolboxes is one way we practice resiliency and rebound when we find ourselves in hyper- or hypo-arousal zones. We do this work by developing practices, habits, tools, and internalized and externalized resources that help soothe, regulate, redirect, and ground ourselves.

I focus heavily in my work with my therapy clients on helping them cultivate wide, diverse, rich, and effective multi-sensory toolboxes of resources they can use to practice resiliency when outside of their Windows of Tolerance. I aim to make sure that these tools are both internal and external in nature (tools you can call upon without external props or relational resources, and tools that do include those things); multi-sensory (they engage all five senses); and invisible and visible (tools you can use at home when no one’s watching, and others you can use in the conference room when your boss is presenting and looking at you).

Here’s an example of a multi-sensory self-regulation toolbox I developed with someone that they can do at home if they’re hyper-aroused and going into panic, anxiety, anger, and irritation:

Multi-Sensory Hyper-Arousal Toolbox:

  • Practice box breathing.
  • Listen to Native American flute music.
  • Put lavender oil on wrists and temples.
  • Hold an ice cube in one hand and let it melt.
  • Look at a photo of someone you love in a happier, more regulated time.

And here are some tools for someone who is prone to hypo-arousal.

Multi-Sensory Hypo-Arousal Toolbox:

  • Take a high-intensity interbal training ride on the Peloton (or do any vigorous exercise).
  • Listen to Rage Against the Machine songs (or any high-energy stimulating music).
  • Smell cinnamon oil or rosemary oil (something sharp and bracing).
  • Chew crunchy, hard food like popcorn.
  • Watch an action movie or action-packed TV series.

Again, all of these tools are designed to “get the brain back online” — in other words, regulated with the prefrontal cortex accessed again — and get back into the Window of Tolerance.

They are tools that strengthen our ability for self-regulation resiliency when we notice we’re outside of the optimal arousal zone.

Building Your Own Multi-Sensory Toolboxes

Take a moment to begin building your own multi-sensory self-regulation toolbox via these prompts:

  • What’s a tool you could use that engages your physical body to dispel excess energy when you’re in hyper-arousal?
  • What’s a tool you could use that engages your physical body to increase energy and blood flow when you’re in hypo-rarousal?
  • What’s a scent that calms you down?
  • What’s a scent that activates you and energizes you?
  • What’s one food you can eat that feels soothing and calming? (Think creamy, cold, sweet, or smooth.)
  • What’s one food you can eat that feels a little more engaging? (Think spicy, crunchy, sharp, or bitter.)
  • What’s a kind of music, or specific song, that just calms you down when you play it?
  • What’s a kind of music, or specific song, that activates you when you hear it?
  • What’s a texture and/or thing you could touch or surround your body with that feels calming and soothing? (Think weighted blankets, soothing lotion, sunshine, or hot tubs.)
  • What’s a texture and/or thing you could touch or surround your body with that feels energizing and activating? (Think cold plunges, being in the rain, or laying in the grass.)

When These Tools May Not Be Enough

If building these kinds of toolboxes and using them seems unattainable, it’s important to recognize that certain factors may necessitate extra support in regulating your nervous system. These factors include a history of relational or unprocessed trauma, a strained marriage triggering attachment wounds, or parenting a child who needs their own therapeutic support in order to reduce household stress.

In these situations, seeking guidance from a qualified mental health professional, such as a child or trauma therapist, or a couples counselor, can be instrumental in improving your emotional regulation and overall well-being at home.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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