The human brain has developed to function as an integrated whole, with the mind and body acting in unison, constantly adapting to various ecological threats and challenges. The physiological mechanisms developed to survive this range of threats and challenges are generically known as the “stress response” or the “fight-flight- freeze-fawn (four F’s) response”.

The response to a stressor is influenced by the three levels of the brain: automatic responses to survival threats in the brainstem, emotionally based responses originating in the limbic system, and more complex and even conscious responses that originate in the cortex. When reacting to threats, stress and danger, two neural pathways within the limbic system are activated. The limbic system is a group of interrelated brain structures, in the mid-level portion of the brain, that play a major role in emotional, behavioural and autonomic responses to threats and danger.

In the first neural pathway, the thalamus receives stimulus from the sensory pathways and sends this message to the amygdala to generate an immediate reaction against the threat. The amygdala triggered the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) to ready the individual for a flight or fight response.

In the second neural pathway, which takes place simultaneous to the first, the thalamus sends the sensory signal to the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. The sensory signals are processes and potential danger, and threats are evaluated and sent to the amygdala to either override or encourage the fear stimulus. When stress responses occur more frequently than normal, the neural pathways are strengthened and regulating emotional reactivity becomes difficult.

In the fight, flight and fawn responses, this results in increases in blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, accelerated delivery of nutrients to muscles, blunted pain perception, increased blood clotting, activation of the immune system, and a brain that is on alert. In the freeze response, the autonomic nervous system sends the body into preservation mode; the heart rate is slowed down, blood flow is preserved and induces “death” to dissuade the predator.

Relentless exposure to stress, trauma and threats results in the chronic overactivity of the stress response which often leads to people being unable to regulate their level of arousal. They remain hyper-aroused, alert and guarded, and they are unable to calm themselves down, even when there is no danger. Some feel embarrassed by their response to a trigger, while at the same time, they may also feel irritable, frustrated, angry and frightened without reason. They may still be prepared to fight, freeze or flee and are flooded with an influx of memories, images, and sensations that are overwhelming.

Given that the persistent activation of the stress response is harmful, self- regulation and coping mechanisms are essential for effective coping, emotional growth, life satisfaction, good health and mitigating the distress and harmful effects of prolonged stress responses.

“Feel the feeling but don’t become the emotion. Witness it. Allow it. Release it.” – Crystal Andrus

Self-regulation is an important cognitive concept that is also known as emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is a process in which an individual is able to understand their emotions, manage distress, and control their emotional responses to internal and external stimuli. Many studies have found that self-regulation skills can reduce risky behaviours and tendencies and increase social adaptation, life satisfaction and academic achievement. Emotional regulation can be affected by facing life stressors, traumas or challenges. Emotional development and regulation are integral in providing individuals with what is needed to persevere through life stressors, traumas and challenges while simultaneously allowing individuals to identify and achieve their full potential. Children and adults with self-regulating skills have been found to be more attentive, academically advanced and able to focus on tasks while ignoring distractions.

A strong correlation has been found between the experience of traumas and stressors and the presence of behavioural and emotional challenges. It has been found that psychological well-being is more influenced by the manner of coping with the stressor and trauma than by the threat of it. As previously mentioned, dysregulation, or distress, occurs when an individual perceives the threat as greater than their capacity and resources required to cope with it. Coping is the behavioural and cognitive efforts to tolerate, manage, reduce or master the demands of the perceived threat or stressor. Coping has two functions; (1) to regulate emotions when they are dysregulated by stressful and traumatic situations (emotion-focused coping) and (2) to manage the threat by directly changing certain aspects of the situation (problem-focused coping).

  • Mindfullness

Mindfulness is defined as bringing an individual’s attention to the experiences of the present moment, in a non-judgmental and accepting manner. Mindfulness reflects the ability of individuals to focus their attention on their current activity without being easily distracted by their thoughts, feelings and surroundings. Alternatively, mindfulness has been defined as paying attention to the events taking place in the present moment in the body, mind and environment, with a kind, curious and non-judgemental attitude. Several studies have found that mindfulness can lead to psychological well-being, mental clarity, attentiveness, enhanced ability to focus, lower stress levels and an overall improvement in quality of life. Mindfulness is a relaxation technique that, when used as a coping strategy, has been found to reduce stress and anxiety. When an individual is mindful, they are attentive to their thoughts and feelings without reacting to them, individuals are then able to let go of negative thoughts and feelings more easily and be less affected by them.

  • Journaling

Journaling is a means of free expression of all one’s thoughts and feelings that can be written or drawn and has no instructions or specific structure. Journaling provides an opportunity for an individual to understand and analyse personal experiences and healing. The goal of journaling is not skill development but rather to provide an open and safe space to explore deeply rooted emotions, thoughts and experiences. Several studies have found that journaling is an outlet for assessing, reflecting, monitoring, and processing emotions. Additionally, journaling assists in the development and improvement of social and communication skills. The opportunity to divulge all thoughts and feelings, without the fear of judgement or the fear of someone reading them, provides the best space for individuals to process experiences, thoughts and emotions without fear of conforming to norms, expectations, punishment or consequences.

  • Art Therapy

Art therapy is a creative means that uses the artmaking process to facilitate growth, recovery and expression. Art therapy can be used with all age groups and focuses on the therapeutic needs that are communicated by the individual through the artmaking process and the final art pieces. The focus of art therapy is communication and expression of thoughts and emotions as opposed to other artistic fields in which aesthetic accomplishment is the main focus. Art therapy is a means for expressing emotions that encourage autonomy and increased self-awareness. Art therapy provides a platform for expressing and communicating emotions, thoughts and experiences that many individuals may find difficult to express with words. It is a means through which one can voice themselves but also allows open interpretation s from multiple perspectives. Art therapy uses a mindfulness approach, allowing individuals to be attentive to the art materials and the artmaking process while allowing the everyday world stresses to fade off into the background.

  • Grounding Techniques

Grounding techniques have been found to help shift an individual’s focus away from their thoughts, worries, memories and sensory flashbacks, toward awareness of the present moment within the mind, body and environment. Grounding techniques are particularly effective in managing the symptoms of anxiety and trauma. The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique encourages an individual to use their 5 senses to take in the details of their surroundings. This not only shifts the focus of the individual but also helps their brain recognise that their environment is safe.

Author: Amina Shah

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