This is our condition: we’re on the river of our inner lives (emotions, body sensations, deep unconscious memory and beliefs), and the degree to which we are not getting drowned/overwhelmed (or frozen in especially cold patches of water) is the degree to which we can regulate the inflation of that tube. But also, the degree to which we make progress directly down the river depends on how much we’re able to paddle and steer with our feet. If we can manage a contentment with living on the surface of our inner life, then we can just haul out of the river of our own experience (notice, not the river of time—we’re stuck with that) and adopt a static philosophy/religion/denial. But inasmuch as we want a deeper and more contented life, then we have to deal with the inner river. -Marty Cooper
Self-Regulation As An Inner Tube On The River Of Life
by Marty Cooper, MFT
So, here’s the starting point for this article, a contention about overwhelm: It’s impossible to feel safe in our lives if we cannot manage overwhelm. If we are either often experiencing overwhelm, or we feel that if we let our guard down, we’ll get overwhelmed, we will adopt one of the primal and rigid defenses to guard, in an overgeneralized way, against this terrible experience.
Which then, of course, begs the questions, “What is safety?” and, “What is overwhelm?”
Safety and Overwhelm
Ok, last question first: overwhelm (when it comes to humans), we can define as that state when our system’s capacity to process information and experience is exceeded. This can be non-damaging: “I was overwhelmed with laughter, though I had promised to not laugh anymore at his puns.” Or it can be very severe: “The pneumonia overwhelmed her system and she could not fight off the infection without a week in the hospital.” But the commonality is that whatever relevant system is involved, it is unable to self-regulate in the face of a too-strong force.
For human beings, arguably the most important system is the nervous system, which is overwhelmed in the exactly the same way: it’s capacity to metabolize new information and energy is exceeded, and thus it’s ability to self-regulate collapses. It’s overwhelmed. When this happens, we have backup regulators that are not under conscious control, such that if we’re not able to consciously modulate the “input,” (able to regulate), then we go into one of the pre-programmed, inherited defenses, either fighting, fleeing, freezing, or submitting (also called “feigned death”). These are wired into our nervous systems as foundational strategies to avoid “permanently overwhelmed” (i.e., to avoid death).
So, second questions, “What is safety?”: This is a much trickier question to answer, because “safety” is often framed in terms of external factors, like, “I’m safe when I have a X income,” or, “I’m safe when I know my friends loves me.” But what is meaningful about the experience of safety cannot be that we are really out of danger in our lives, because it’s pretty clear that our literal safety (our not getting “permanently overwhelmed”) is up for grabs from moment to moment. Loved ones die, or decide they don’t love us. Markets collapse. Companies get acquired. We get terminal cancer, or terminal encounters with speeding busses. It’s actually remarkable that, given the uncertainties of this life, we can actually experience something called “safety” at all.
So, the most useful definition of safety I’ve found is: safety is when our nervous system experiences (for whatever particular reasons) a “neuro-state” of safety. In other words, we’re safe when our nervous system says so, and it says so when our particular criterion of “not threatened with overwhelm, permanent or temporary” is met.
Or more simply: safety is an illusory condition in relation to the external world, and an absolutely vital state in relation to the internal world.
So, what, then, is “Self-regulation”? Simply put, self-regulation is our system’s capacity to not get overwhelmed. Dan Siegel, the wonderful writer on neuroscience and the neuro-informed life, talks about what he calls the “window of tolerance” (WOT). The WOT is that range of functioning of our nervous system where we are not overwhelmed. Above the WOT is hyper-activity and rigidity. Below the WOT is hypo-activity and collapse. Within the WOT, we feel basically safe (there’s much nuance here, but in general this is true). As we move out of, or find ourselves out of, the WOT, we feel more and more unsafe. There are monitors in us that look for movement towards overwhelm, and seek to stave it off, because again, if we get too overwhelmed (too dysregulated), we stop functioning, which means either we die through starvation or die through getting snapped up by a lion. (All of us are descended from those apes who paid very close attention to the WOT.)
Notice, though, that self-regulation is about avoiding overwhelm, not necessarily staying within the WOT, nor necessarily feeling safe. We can be self-regulated by workaholism, or by depression—they both keep us from becoming overwhelmed. The difference between these and regulation that keeps us within the WOT are not fundamental, but rather discriminated by consequence. Depression, while it is regulating (by stabilizing one at a collapsed state), has tremendous costs.
Self-regulation does not, in other words, need to be “healthy,” in order to work to inhibit overwhelm. But inasmuch as we are aware of the painfulness of certain regulation strategies, we’re going to want something different, something healthier. And it’s in the process of acting on that desire that an inner tube is necessary.
The Inner Tube (on the River of Life)
Imagine an inner tube in a river, but not some backyard pool one with the head of a sea horse, but rather, one of those monster truck tires.
Ok, so you’re floating down the river in this inner tube, plunked there in the middle hole, feet in the water, and other than that, the only thing you have is a hand pump by which you can inflate, or deflate, the inner tube.
This is our condition: we’re on the river of our inner lives (emotions, body sensations, deep unconscious memory and beliefs), and the degree to which we are not getting drowned/overwhelmed (or frozen in especially cold patches of water) is the degree to which we can regulate the inflation of that tube. But also, the degree to which we make progress directly down the river depends on how much we’re able to paddle and steer with our feet. If we can manage a contentment with living on the surface of our inner life, then we can just haul out of the river of our own experience (notice, not the river of time—we’re stuck with that) and adopt a static philosophy/religion/denial. But inasmuch as we want a deeper and more contented life, then we have to deal with the inner river.
So, the nature of an inner tube is that regulating the pressure in the inner tube will automatically lift or drop us into the water, into or out of our own deeper experience/feelings/sensations. How to regulate this pressure is related to how close or far we are from overwhelm, i.e., how much space we have for our experience. Knowing what this “sweet spot” is requires developing an ability to notice the conditions of the water and our capacity to tolerate them, allowing us to decide how deep or shallow our draft should be.
(This is no small learning, and is why some self-reflective practice is so important in seeing the information that allows us to inflate or deflate. Mindfulness practice is preeminently a practice of self-noticing, and cultivating the subtle discriminations in our experience that allows us to be elegantly self-regulating, like the master scuba diver adjusting their buoyancy. This is so important because when we start edging towards a sense of overwhelm, when hitting rough water, we can panic, which often leads to things like puncturing our tubes and sinking, or manically overinflating (defending). In other words, reacting in a way directly counter to self-regulation. We zig when our nervous systems need us to zag.)
So, in paying attention to our experience, and noticing how close we are to the edges of the window of tolerance, we can make adjustments. Which means, shifting our system towards a float point, or stopping the slide toward overwhelm. This is a very creative realm of action, which includes all the “coping” strategies that come out of various therapies. You can pet your dog and shift your nervous system towards a state of safety and openness. You can get advice from a trusted friend, to the same effect. You can fill your bandwith of attention with a light, or tear-jerking, movie, or engage in housecleaning, in order to prevent anxious thoughts from cycling up to panic (stopping the slide towards overwhelm).
Whatever the strategy or tool, the rule of thumb with self-regulation is: anything that our nervous system is regulated by, is a self-regulator.
Whether it’s standing on your head, reading spiritual wisdom, eating more carbs, or drinking alcohol—it doesn’t matter at all as long as it acts to neuro-regulate. Our nervous systems don’t care about the form; if it works it works. (The skillful discrimination comes in not in terms of the effect, but in terms of the consequences. Cigarettes, for instance, act as a potent neuro-regulator, but at the expense of physical health and cancer risk. Other strategies can do the same job, but with less cost.)
The metaphor of the inner tube, then, is just a way of representing this inescapable requirement of human life, in which you’re either on the shore and not moving (growing), or in the water and having to dynamically adjust to the nature of one’s relationship to (inner) river, in order to stay in touch with the water enough to keep moving (allowing you to paddle your feet), but not so much that you drown or freeze from too much contact with the river (become overwhelmed).
This may be the proverbial curse of Adam, that we don’t get the static and stable firm ground of Eden, and have to work to stay alive. But as we accept that this is our condition (and often get over a rather deep grumpiness), we can learn the dual skills of assessing our river from moment to moment, and elegantly regulate our tubes (our selves) so that our ongoing experience becomes that of safety and dynamic rest.
A patient of mine, in a recent therapy session, was talking about his girlfriend, at a very rocky point in his relationship. He was upset, but for a time able to stay in contact with me, and with his body sensations. At some point, though, he went silent, body went rigid, head pulled down and he closed his eyes. He was rapidly slipping towards overwhelm, in a way we’d seen before, and I wanted to help anchor him as soon as I could before those automatic defenses really set in.
We had used this image of the inner tube before, so I said, “John, seems like you’re deflating there. Can you maybe open your eyes and look around?” He quickly shook his head, telling me that wasn’t the right way to inflate the tube. “Ok, so see if you can just feel the blanket you’re sitting on. Just notice the sensations.” It’s a soft blanket that is usually soothing to touch. That was more manageable—meaning moved more towards his WOT—and he lightly stroked it. “Just notice if that feels good or not.” He nodded. So a bit of inflation.
“John, see if anything else feels good in your body.” With the bit of pleasure from the blanket, contrasting with the fear and fright of his relationship, he was able to noticeably engage his internal experience. His head moved a little bit, and he motioned at the muscles along the neck. “What do you notice there.” There was a long pause—speaking his experience has been difficult for him—and then he said, “There’s a light, warm energy up both sides.”
“Great, just notice that and feel the pleasure there. We won’t ignore what we were talking about, but lets get you more support, more air in the tube.” He has a rich sense of humor, so the somewhat absurd image of the tire to represent something so profound tickled him. I.e., it acted as a neuro-regulator.
He lightly smiled, and stayed with the sensations for a minute, then let out a deep sigh and opened his eyes, looking at me. “Pfew,” he said. “Was sinking, there.” “How are you doing now? What are you noticing?” “Better, much better. Not overwhelmed.” I asked, “Are you wanting to talk some more about your relationship?” “Yeah,” he said, “but let’s be gingerly…”
That same process of dysregulation and re-regulation, which I was able to facilitate as he got to the edge of overwhelm, is the same process we learn in relation to ourselves, and each time we survive one of these rapid deflations, we (and our nervous systems) learn to self-regulate, and thereby learn how to feel a little bit safer with the facts of life on the river.
Marty Cooper specializes in working with depression and anxiety. He helps clients gain insight but also practice skills for overcoming depression and anxiety. You can learn more about his work at his website. You can also reach him directly at (415) 835-2162.