I’m buzzin’, I’m buzzin’. Looking from left to right, right to left, over my shoulder, off in the distance, at the person next to me, the person over there, the girl on her phone, that lady on the till, that guy holding the door. The looks on their faces, the way they move their hands, even the way they blow their noses. You see, I’m on high alert, yes, high alert, ready for anything, just anything.
I’m in school, the noise, the humdrum, the pushing the jostling- woah! What the hell look are you giving me? You bump into me and give me that look… I’m gone.
I can’t do this piggin’ English. I can’t do it, I can’t do it. Oh f***, oh hell. Pencil tapping, pencil tapping, kick the table leg, kick the table leg. “Be quiet Dwayne”. Be quiet Dwayne. What the f***. What the f***… I’m gone.
Back home to foster carers. Slam the door. “How was school?” How was school? That tower of crap. Oh such a crappy place, a crappy day. Footsteps. “Did you hear me? How was school? ” Wall found, fist gone through…. I’m gone.
Where have I gone? Gone to a place where body rules mind. Where amygdala eats frontal lobe. Where instinct eats reason. Where physicality beats mind. You can try and talk to me, but there is no listening. You are wasting your time. My ability to process verbal language, apply logic, analysis, to think of another’s perspective, to empathise, to think of where this behaviour might land me is nil, nada, nothing. I am busy surviving, consumed with this task to the exclusion of all else.
The more you talk at me, the more I will try and survive. Which means I’ll lash out more, I’ll verbally whip you or threaten to hit you or more, I’ll write SURVIVE large across the sky. I’m gone, gone to this place of primitive survival. Hell, sometimes I’m so consumed I can’t even remember it, I blackout.
But why are you trying to survive, you ask? Nobody’s trying to get you. Nobody’s trying to hurt you. You’re a bit stressed maybe? But why this response? It’s so unnecessary, so disproportionate. You need to get a grip of yourself, loosen up. You just need to get better control of yourself.
Problem is, I can’t. I can’t because I have been primed, primed to perfection by my experience. While you might go through your life where your greatest expectation of danger is a 2 inch spider in the bath, my expectation of danger is constant and brutal. Danger could strike at any time and in any place. Like not knowing when Mum’s partner is going to come home off his face and decide to exercise his muscles on me or my Mum. Or my depressed Mum who hides under the duvet but could emerge at any time and issue words that can slice like a machete as easily as she could emerge and give me a hug. Or the car crash that came from nowhere and took my sister and left me trapped for hours. For those who have experienced the chaos, the conflict, the violence, the trauma. Our bodies learn to be on high alert, yes, high alert, ready for anything, just anything dangerous.
So I go through life in constant fear. Mostly I don’t realise this. It has become such a way of life that as far as I’m concerned it’s normal. So when I come across a slightly stressful situation, like being knocked into in the corridor or hallway I’m primed to see danger. To interpret the knock as something sinister, as aggressive, to read the facial expressions as hostile, as something that I need to survive. Or when stressed at my lack of ability in the classroom, to see any questioning or criticism of me, however minor, like tapping my pencil , as a threat to my very being. So I start to survive the way my body has taught me how. Disengage thinking, engage fight or flight.
‘All of this looks a lot like ADHD’, you might be thinking. Well yeah it does, but it’s not. For some it is to do with ADHD, but for me, it’s about my arousal levels. What I’m saying is that my baseline arousal levels are set much higher than yours- and I wasn’t the one that set them. While you might get a bit stressed in a busy hallway and get annoyed by being knocked, and go from ‘calm to mildly irritated’, I go from ‘on high alert for danger’ to ‘in the danger zone’. Same circumstance, different response and it’s my life experience that has primed me for this response and has set my arousal level so high.
And you can’t forget that I may have some specially primed trigger bombs, ready to go off. It could be a smell, a sight, a sound that seems perfectly innocuous to everyone else but remind me (and often only at a subconscious level) of some previous traumatic experience(s). The tick of a clock, the smell of tobacco, of alcohol, of bread, the feel of a towel, the sight of a beard.
But what can you do? What can you do when I go into my survival mode?
The biggest most powerful thing you have that can help me calm down is oxytocin. When I get stressed out of my mind I have cortisol and adrenalin coursing through my veins- it’s what chemically puts me into survival mode and keeps me there until I’ve literally burned it off or the antidote of oxytocin kicks in. But how do I get my shot of it?
Well oxytocin is the chemical of love, of care and the way most people get their dose is through skin-to-skin contact or a hug or some other physical act of care. Most people get this in childhood and through co-regulating their emotions with a loving parent, their stress levels become lower and over time and with maturity they learn to self-regulate and become less reliant on co-regulation. However, for some of us, we never got this, we were either neglected or abused. So we’re still at the small child co-regulation phase- we need you to help us to co-regulate in order to calm down. For others who might have successfully experienced the co-regulation phase with a parent or carer, some other experience might have primed us to be on high alert such as a traumatic accident, a sudden bereavement, anything that came out of the blue and stressed us immensely. And for some, it can be something as far back as a traumatic birth experience that primed our stress hormone system to go into overdrive. (evidence) Whatever the cause, the way to get us to calm down if we seem to be incapable of doing it by ourselves, is the same – some positive calming physical contact.
Now I’m obviously a volatile teenager, so it’s not like you can scoop me up in your arms and give me a massive hug. In fact, I might then deck you. What you need to do is to start to talk to me in an animated way that matches my level of arousal and then slowly start talking to me more quietly and calmly. When you feel that I might not be about to deck you, throw in any small level of gentle physical contact like putting a hand on my arm and saying, ‘it’s going to be okay’, and leading me off to a less stressful environment, or going to sit down, with a hand on my shoulder, or my arm and gently and slowly tapping. It helps me to come down from my hyepraroused state. It at least begins to interrupt the unrelenting flow of adrenalin and cortisol within me and start to bring me back to ‘normal’ to a place where my frontal lobe kicks in again. Any act of care with some physical contact can be enough, it’s amazing.
But in order for this to work it has to be done while you are calm- or it isn’t co-regulation, you’re going to wind me up even more. The key is not to let me and my hyperarousal, dysregulate your emotions. So if you’re getting angry or upset it’s time for you to get someone else to take over, because you are not going to be helping anyone, including yourself.
Now it is easier for a parent or carer to do this as making physical contact with me is allowed and encouraged. Some workers try to avoid it for fear of being accused of something dodgy, to which I say to you, if you really care about me, if you stay calm in my storm, and you pat my back, rest your hand on my shoulder, I am only going to feel better and calmer for once in my life and the chances of me making an accusation against you is slim. If you’re worried, make sure you are not alone while calming me down, but please don’t avoid giving me what I so desperately need just because of a fear. I stand to gain so much from this, you stand to gain so much from this- the bonds of a positive life-changing relationship are made in these moments, when someone is really there for me at my worst. Help me now, and I’ll be far more open to you helping me with all of my issues later so that I can eventually sort myself out.
Sometimes I’m so far off in my survival mode that starting to talk me down won’t initially work. This is where distraction and diversion can work a treat. If I am in the middle of serving a verbal abuse pie, possibly verging on a physical abuse pie to you or a colleague, saying something slightly leftfield that I am totally not expecting can interrupt my hyperaroused chemical flow. Like looking over to the wall and saying ‘Did you just see that spider, it was massive?’. You might get a ‘what the f***?’ in response, but if you divert them off their tirade then you can begin to de-escalate.
Distraction and diversion is also an excellent tool to utilise before I fully go off-on-one. If you can see that I am ‘antsy’, physically ticking and possibly about to blow- change the focus. So if you have just told me to “be quiet”, and you can see I’m going to blow, say something along the lines of, ‘oh actually could you do me a favour and open the window please/ hand these sheets out/ whatever will get me distracted?’. Or if you’re coming along and I’m about to knock the guy into next week who just innocently bumped into me in the hallway, say ‘hey, could you carry these for me?’ Or ‘hey Dwayne, do you know where Steve is?’.
In all of this, don’t draw attention to the fact I am about to blow- just distract and divert. It gives me half a chance for my cortisol and adrenalin to drop off before they get a total grip on me.
In all of this, humour can also stop situations from escalating, but you have to be careful how you use it or it could make me a whole load worse, not better. Never use humour to make fun of me, but if you help me to see the funny side of situations then you can stop the things that are making my stress levels rise from literally taking me over. So if I am tapping my pencil and making a racket because I’m stressed about the work I’m supposed to be doing, ask me quietly if I’ve struck gold yet, not so others can hear, a joke between us. Then I don’t get embarrassed and end up with everyone laughing at me which is only going to stress me out more, not less. And then I might laugh or crack a smile. I might be laughing at you and your lame-ass attempt at a joke, but I’ll be laughing, and that’s the important bit. Why? Because laughing helps me to produce all those stress-busting chemicals too. The cortisol and adrenalin come under fire before they even get going.
You can then talk about the stress flashpoint at an appropriate later moment, acknowledging that you noticed I was getting agitated. This is such powerful stuff. If you help me to stay calm, and then later let me know that you noticed this (and this it wasn’t a fluke that you got me to do something to distract me or made me laugh) I will be blown away. Someone that helped me stay calm. Hell, someone that noticed how I was feeling. It then doesn’t take much more to get me to a place where I’ll maybe talk about how I’m feeling and you can help me come up with strategies to help me stay calm and reduce my baseline arousal levels. If you help me meet my immediate basic need (to stay calm) then I will sense your care, and care makes us listen.
Care makes everyone listen, no matter who you are, where you come from, whether you have a big problem or a little one, someone who shows care is someone who is listened to.
So come along next time and read what I have to say about those next steps- about helping me reduce my baseline arousal levels and preventing me from even beginning to have a blowout in the first place. If you don’t want to miss out, be sure to sign up to the email list to receive notification of new posts. Your email address will not be shared with anyone else.
If you can’t wait till then, an excellent resource on hyperarousal and how it relates to children and young people with attachment difficulties and how to overcome them is the book, ‘Attachment in Common Sense and Doodles: A Practical Guide’. It’s written by a Consultant Clinical Psychologist specialising in attachment issues and the impact of early trauma. It’s amazingly accessible, easy-to-read with real life examples and ideal for anyone new to attachment theory or wanting to put some practical bones on it.
Although it’s aimed at adoptive and foster parents it is an excellent resource for workers and social work students too. It’s a book with theory but also and most importantly with practical advice and strategies- because let’s face it, books on theory are all well and good but when you live in the real world and interact with real people you need to know how to apply the theory!