Hyper + Hypo-Arousal: The Emotional Rollercoaster of the 2016 Election

Welcome to the Radical Self-Care for Radical Action blog series. This series serves as a multigenre and strategic compilation of ways to avoid or heal activist burnout. During this new era, we need to keep activism and social justice efforts continuous and sustainable; we cannot afford burnout. While burnout and activism have had close relationships to one another, so have healing practices and social change methodologies. Every week, both leading up to and following the inauguration of a president that has Cortisol levels running high for many, expect a post on what it means to heal oneself in order to heal a country. From neuroscience to yoga to meditation to cardiology, learn how to systematically refuel in these trying times.

The hippocampus, ridges beneath the lateral ventricles of the brain, deals with stress the most. It stores sensory reactions that cultivate stress responses. The amygdala, two tiny ovals that lie beneath the regulator of bodily responses – the hypothalamus – questions the information in the hippocampus, seeking, like we all do, context for what is going on. Once the amygdala determines that the context is unsettling, it sends the brain into a fight or flight response, baring us down to survival mechanisms. Here, the brain also takes into account a third option for survival: dissociation.


The above diagram shows three states of arousal. Arousal is regulated through the firing of neurons in the brain. Hypocretin-expressing neurons in the lateral hypothalamus – the part of the brain that regulates bodily responses to stress and trauma – increase arousal. Activation of the arousal system of the brain initiates fight or flight responses. Psychologists have also found that such activation determines what one’s own “arousal capacity” or “window of tolerance” is.

Dissociation is often caused by hypo- and hyper-arousal. When someone tries to dissociate from a feeling, they attempt to move it outside the self – to go into over-drive (hyper-arousal) or to check out (hypo-arousal). But this is not how human beings work. When this happens, the feelings that are dissociated make their way back into the body through the very states that take them out. In hyper-arousal, the brain has a hard time regulating away from the right orbital frontal cortex down to the hypothalamus. The state (an emotion that lasts even after it has run its course) caused by this can express itself through anger, aggression or lashing out at those seemingly unrelated to the situation one is dissociating from. This in turn activates both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Hypo-arousal is often expressed through checking out with excess: shopping, food, internet, or sleep are common forms of such an excess. Overuse of one’s vices deactivate both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The goal, according to this psychological framework, is to experience the feelings that cause the states in the Optimal Arousal Zone. In other words, to recognize those feelings as part of – not separate from – the self.

Picture1.pngWhen individuals cultivate healthy ways of processing emotions in the moment – without dissociating – they expand their windows of tolerance. The expansion of windows of tolerance leads to more thoughtful work, engaged service commitments, and increased energy and stamina to continue being of service over long spans of time.

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