Oxytocin, butterflies + pet toys for self-regulation

The window of tolerance (Dan Seigel, 2010) became such an important concept for me when working with dysregulation and trauma. It refers to the zone of optimal arousal (not too much, not too little) where you are able to manage and even thrive in your daily life. For people who have experienced trauma or chronic stress, that window often becomes quite narrow. Take that one thought further and I wonder just how many of us are experiencing life through the smallest of windows?

Anyhow, I think it's helpful to visualize and understand that the range within which we function best is a balance between hyperarousal and hyperarousal. Let’s face it, life is never going to be free of stressful or even traumatic experiences I’m sorry to say. And as a result, you might shift from your window, or optimal arousal zone, into a state of hyperarousal (fight or flight) or hypoarousal (shutdown and immobilization) yielding a host of symptoms from anxiety, anger, depression, confusion and dissociation. Some of us might even fluctuate between the two states.

When we’re too far outside the window, it makes it difficult to learn, be in the present moment, navigate relationships, and for some of us almost impossible to feel at ease in our own skin.

So if you are feeling anxious, upset, irritated or just simply out of whack, you are likely in more of a hyperaroused state. That said, you might try supercharging your hug with a 🦋.

The Butterfly Hug is a great technique created by Lucina Artigas during her time working with survivors of Hurricane Pauline (Mexico 1998).

It was designed to be self-administered, which I'm demo'ing here, and based on EMDR Therapy and the idea that bilateral stimulation helps soothe and ground the nervous system, reducing the fight or flight activation. Combined with some calm breathing through the nose and your on your way to self-regulating through those crummy feelings attached to anxiety. (Noticing the breath is optional and may not be a place to go if this is the first time you are trying either activity shared here).

When this technique was first shared with me I rolled my eyes. How is hugging myself gonna change anything?! Well, we humans respond to touch with the release of oxytocin (attachment hormone). The body doesn't differentiate between when someone we love touches us and when we're touching or holding ourselves. Oxytocin is released either way.

Give it a try, even just for a minute, and notice what you experience. Has anything shifted? Sensations, feelings, your energy, including your thoughts and emotions? See if you can do this with loads of curiousity and compassion and reframe from harsh judgements (damn hard sometimes, so give yourself permssion to give yourself a break).

Here’s a second self-regulation activity that may help if you find yourself in more of a hypoaroused state - what one of my clients describes as: “that spacey, no energy, foggy brain state, all weighted down by a thick wet blanket.”

All you need is something you can squeeze/press and/or articulate your fingers with (like a tennis ball, bubble wrap, fidget toys like spinners).

Before you start, see if you can connect to your inner curious puppy/kitten (or scientist) and really take in the experience of touching your object - how does it feel? Firm, soft, gooshy? Tacky, rough, smooth? Does it change shape easily? Is there a sound that it makes when you engage with it? Spend a few moments with this.

Now, if its available to you, you could also bring your awareness to track sensations inside your body while you continue to play with the object. Notice your heart beat or the path or movement of your breath. This extra hit of dual awareness (thank you to Trauma Specialist Babette Rothschild for this concept) calls on the sensory nervous system and toggling or balancing awareness between our exteroceptors (5 senses: sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste) with the interoceptive sensations we’re experiencing (internal sensations).

In my demo, I’m toggling between the sensations in my fingers (touch), the sound the object is making (hearing), and where I’m sensing the movement of breath in my body. And, I’m trying to do all of this without judgement (tricky!). If you find that dual awareness becomes overwhelming, let it go, and return to your object and how it feels in your hands.

Side note about observing the breath: You don’t have to practice the dual awareness (or breath awareness at all) to reap the benefits of either activity. In this case, quite simply just holding a textured object and noticing how it feels in your hand, or sounds, (without going inside) may help to shift you from a low energy, flat, even numbed out state to a more active and present, non-defensive, state.

And, if after giving either of these activities a try you’re like “nope” or “WTF?”, that's cool. Your experience is your experience and that is true. This may not be the self-reg tool for you. And so we try and try again. The options are quite limitless.

Follow up note: My dear friend and colleague Jennifer Snowdon did not find the Butterfly Hug activity soothing or helpful. In fact she had an entirely opposite experience which she shares in her recent blog Feeling Dysregulated. She offers some very wise words that I will echo here:

If you are taught something amazing by someone and you hate it, that's okay. You are normal. You are just different than the other person.