Tune into your nervous system to help you get out of a bad mood.
Updated: Dec 29, 2022
Written by Melissa Barsotti, LCSW, certified EMDR therapist in San Diego, California.
Article published on upjourney.com.
Photo by Hello I'm Nik
First, consider the following question: "what is my body telling me?"
This is an important question because our nervous system will dictate which resources are available for us to use at any given moment. The following content will provide a glimpse into the first of three principles of the Polyvagal Theory, which is the autonomic hierarchy. A full breakdown of the Polyvagal Theory is beyond the scope of this blog. References are provided for further reading. If you would like to skip the science, feel free to go straight to the helpful steps section .
Deb Dana, an author and psychotherapist has helped in translating Dr. Stephen Porges' research of Polyvagal Theory, making the understanding of the autonomic nervous system more accessible to us all. My understanding of Deb Dana's work is broken down into three autonomic zones: green, red, and grey. Imagine there is a ladder with the green zone at the top, the red zone in the middle, and the grey zone at the bottom of the ladder. This ladder is constructed by organizing the most primitive zone at the bottom, often referred to as the reptilian brain (the Dorsal Vagal/Grey Zone), followed by what is referred to as the mammalian brain (Sympathetic nervous system/Red Zone), and the last to emerge, the ventral vagal system of social communication and connection (green zone) (Dana, 2020).
The Green zone is is where we have access to all of the resources that we know of internally and externally. Think of the Green zone as your wisest self. In this zone, you have access to your thinking brain and can remember the tools you have learned in therapy/ your favorite books/ or most trusted friends and loved ones. The green zone indicates that you feel safe and connected.
When you are in the red zone, you are in fight/flight mode, and in a state of protection. Your nervous system has received signals of threat. In this zone, you literally are fighting or running in some way. In this state we may find ourselves feeling "out of control, dysregulated, or in danger (Dana, 2020)." Anger or fear emotions are typically activated in this zone. In a state of anger, you may find yourself in an argument or sending snarky and mean text messages. You may also find yourself over-doing things in a state of frenzy. You may be over-working, over-cleaning, over-organizing, and over-planning, among other things that one can over-do. Here, you are a a human-doing vs a human-being.
Lastly, the grey zone is a state of "shut-down, collapse, and disconnection from others and the world (Dana, 2020)." In this zone, you "may still go through the motions, but with no energy to care (Dana, 2020)." You may find yourself in this zone after exhausting your sympathetic nervous system.
Now onto helpful steps to get out of a bad mood:
Step 1: STOP what you are doing. Literally stop, move away if possible, and take a moment to tune into your body. Your eyes can be open or closed. Do a body scan from the tips of your toes to the crown of your head, scanning each and every muscle, looking for tension or relaxation, or collapse. Important areas to consider are: your facial muscles, your core, and lower extremities. Are your jaw bones tense? Are you clenching your teeth? Are your shoulders tense and tight, or are they heavy and droopy? How is your breathing? Are you finding it difficult to breathe? Difficulty grasping air? Is your breath slow and faint? Notice your fingers. Are your fingers curled up into a fist? Are you cracking your knuckles? Notice your toes. Are your toes clenched up and tight?
Step 2: Identify which autonomic zone you're in and do the following:
Green zone: Engage in some mindfulness, go for a walk, do some deep breathing and stretching, text or call a close trusted friend, or play your favorite podcast or youtube video for inspiration. Identify your emotions and your needs and make it a priority to meet your needs. Please see the resource list for a list of needs.
If you are in the RED zone: Notice your environment and identify something that signals safety to you. Release your tense muscles. Focus on your out-breath, breathing out longer and slower than your in-breath. Identify a sound that is soothing, or make a soothing sound with your breath. You can make the sound of the wind or the sound of the ocean, or engage in some humming. All of this will move you away from a place of danger, and move you away from thoughts, which likely are in a tunnel, and likely unwise at this moment. Wait for your body to be more regulated. This will not take longer than a few minutes, if not a minute or two. Now that your body is more regulated, bring kindness and compassion to yourself if possible. Remind yourself of all of the things that are true and present now that indicate you are safe because you may have experienced an emotional flashback and your system may think and feel that it is in the past, when you were in danger in some way.
Now that you are more regulated, ask yourself: What is within my control? Make the decision to let go all that is out of your control, such as people or situations, or systems.
Next, connect with your values. What are your top 3 values in life? Please see the resource list for a list of values. Many people identify the following 3 values: personal health/wellness & authenticity, family, and career/meaningful work/or contribution. Then choose which value will guide your decisions in this moment.
If you are arguing with your loved one, then you can choose to let go of the problem and choose connection as a priority. You may choose to focus on your wellness and drink some water, tea, and engage in some aromatherapy to continue to nurture yourself and continue to regulate your nervous system. If you're at work, you may choose to focus on what you do well and what means the most to you at work, and let go of everything else, simply because your body is at work. A simple solution: Bring your mind to where your body is.
If you are in the GREY zone: Bring attention to one area or muscle group in your body that is not experiencing pain or fatigue. Bring attention to that area/muscles in your body, such as your elbows, eyebrows, lips, clavicle. Get the picture? Touch these areas. Caress these areas. Allow yourself to feel your own gentle touch. You may notice a little more activation in your system, hopefully enough to get you out of bed, out of your chair, out of your home, to identify something that you connect with. Go to a window, go outside. Take your shoes off and let your feet feel the ground beneath you, such as grass or dirt. If you enjoy nature, bring attention to the sound of the birds and notice the color of the sky. Allow yourself to feel the elements outside.
Now, think of someone you know or don't know that needs kindness, compassion and goodness in their life and send them well wishes. Now that you're in that place of compassion, bring kindness and compassion to yourself. You don't have to love yourself or like yourself, but you can simply bring kindness to yourself and give yourself permission to receive kindness. Do one kind thing for yourself right now.
Then, bring to mind your values and focus on one value to dictate your next decisions.
Essentially, the steps for any zone include: 1. Stop. 2. Notice your body and release your muscles or caress areas of your body such as your eyebrows or elbows and allow yourself to experience this felt sense. 3. Bring kindness and compassion to yourself and do one kind thing for yourself. 4. Bring to mind your Values and allow your values to dictate your next decisions.
Check out Deb Dana's website Rhythm of Regulation for more resources.
Author, researcher, and speaker Dr. Brene Brown offers a free pdf on values. See below
Puddle Dancer Press: Nonviolent Communication Books and Resources have made a list of feelings and needs pdf available. See below
Dana, D. (2020). Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory. Sounds True.
Dana, D. (2020). Polyvagal Flip Chart: Understanding The Science of Safety. W.W. Norton & Company.