Why is talking so difficult when we’re in a heightened state?
What is regulation and how do we regulate?
These are the questions I am being flooded with this week and they are OH. SO. IMPORTANT!
THESE are the million-dollar questions.
THESE are what the public need to understand.
THIS is what large scale mental health education campaigns need to include in their public messaging.
Let me explain why.
But firstly – Who am I? And what’s my game?
I’m Allison Davies, a Registered Music Therapist practising in regional Tasmania, Australia.
Registered Music Therapists (RMT’s) are highly educated and experienced in all things neurology, physiology, psychology, biology and so on. Music is our tool, but understanding and working with client need is our specialty.
Understanding the brain, how it functions and how we can support it to function at it’s best is what we do. And that’s because music, at it’s core, isn’t an art form, it’s a neurologic language. It influences almost EVERYTHING about how the brain works!(1)
This might be new info to you! It’s actually pretty new to all of us, because it wasn’t until the early 1990’s that we gained, through brain imaging and wave recording, such depth of knowledge on music and the brain. But we now know that experiencing music involves almost every single part of the brain that we know of.(2)
So, Registered Music Therapists really are leaders in the field when it comes to allied health and the brain.
Oh yeah, also, I’m autistic.
So not only do I understand the neurology, but I have lived my life with a brain that struggles with executive function, emotional regulation, anxiety and spoken communication. I’ve been forced, as a matter of (what my brain thinks of as) survival, to learn how to analyse my brain, work out my own regulatory needs and regulate, in order to function, for my entire life.
I am not an advocate or an activist, I am a storyteller.
I don’t talk about anything that I don’t have personal lived experience with, a knowledge of the current research AND have worked within my own career as an allied health practitioner. I take my responsibility for my voice, on this platform, very seriously. And I, like you, am extremely passionate about creating a shift in the world of mental health, in order for us and our loved ones to live in balance and not in illness.
Why is talking so difficult when we’re in a heightened state?
The answer to this can be complex or simple. Complex if we look at allllll of the layers, and allllll of the brain functions combined with every person’s unique experience and personal needs.
Which we couldn’t possibly – every one of us will have our own thresholds, capabilities, resources and motivations based on our own lived experience. But when we look just at the basic science of it? The answer is simple.
When we become highly aroused, the cognitive parts of our brain start to shut down.
And this is true for everyone, it’s neurology, it’s the human condition.
When we aren’t coping with something – if we’re overwhelmed, if the environment is too hectic or unpredictable or if we become highly emotional – The Limbic System (the part of our brain in charge of emotions, fear and anxiety) becomes super active. The brain floods itself with chemicals (cortisol and adrenalin), and we experience the physiological symptoms of anxiety, AKA Survival Mode.
This is called an Amygdala Hijack(3) because it literally shuts down the part of our brain in charge of our executive functions – the Pre Frontal Cortex. And when ol’ PFC shuts down we struggle with (or find impossible) functions such as problem-solving, decision making, reasoning, comprehending, organising, initiating, inhibiting, adapting, analysing, evaluating, focusing, speaking and knowing which words go with which thoughts.
This can make it anywhere between uncomfortable, all the way to impossible, to speak cognitively.
And this is *not* just for people experiencing trauma or extreme mental illness, this is true for all of us!!!
(You know when you have an argument with your partner and then you think of all the good things to say the next day? When your Pre Frontal Cortex is active again? Yep. That’s why!)
What is regulation?
Regulation is when we follow steps, rules or frameworks to ensure a desired outcome. Usually, a balanced, productive or healthy outcome – as these are what we want! To self-regulate means we pro-actively take steps to create an internal sense of balance, so that we can function at our best. And self-regulation is the absolute cornerstone of (what I call) brain-care, and define as ‘Giving our brain MORE of what helps it run, and LESS of what shuts it down’.
When our brain is regulated we’re less likely to experience the amygdala hijack, less likely to find ourselves in shutdown, less likely to be anxious. More able to think straight, focus, engage and communicate.
And this makes regulation the vital first step for anyone seeking or needing help, support or information in regards to understanding their mental health.
How do we regulate?
There are many ways to regulate, and there are many experts in the world who specialise in different pathways to regulation**, but I specialise in using music. Music as the tool, and braincare as the focus. (You can find out more about that here.)
There is so much to understand and there is so much I want to teach you! But for starters here are a few music-based hacks for supporting your brain to regulate…
EXPERIENCING MUSIC IN GENERAL – this activates more of the brain simultaneously than anything else science can find! So listening to, making or thinking about music helps keep it active and therefore actively functioning.
CHANTING – This is my personal fave strategy and I chant every day in a practice I call Melodic Mantra. Chanting is repetitive which can help entrain our Motor Cortex (the part of our brain in charge of movement) in a way that allows hyperactivity to balance or slow down. The repetition also creates a sense of predictability which is what any anxious brain craves the most.
SINGING – using our voice has many benefits but one of them is that the act of using our throat in the act of singing activates the vagus nerve which results in a lowering of the heart rate and respiratory rate. This means a reduced experience of anxiety and an increased level of cognitive functioning.
PARENTESE – This is what we call that dialect we use with new babies and cute puppies and kittens! You know, lullaby voice, limited words, higher-pitched tone and expressive face and eyes. We do this as a nurturing strategy because it helps babies feel safe and loved, which is what every brain is seeking. So tap into this (in the context of talking to an adult of course, not a baby) when you are seeking verbal connection.
HUMMING/WHISTLING – These create melody which activates the limbic system in a way that allows us to release emotion – as opposed to becoming flooded by it. Plus they activate the vagus nerve and are a form of controlled breathing.
THE ISO PRINCIPLE – This is a technique used by many music therapists and refers to using music to ‘matching and move’. In this case matching a state of heightened arousal may mean listening to a fast or loud song, then gradually reducing the tempo or intensity to bring our bodies into a reduced physiological state, as guided by the music. Making a playlist of 3 or 4 songs with the first song being the fastest and the final song being at a resting heart rate is a fab way of experimenting with this.
NURSERY RHYMES/LULLABIES – These are based on simple melody which the brain loves like nothing else. Singing to or making simple melodies akin to nursery rhymes or lullabies will lead to dopamine release, and will assist in your brain feeling safe.
Remember, music is one of your biological languages – it can result in a sense of safety when you use it strategically and feeling safe is what leads to regulation, and regulation is what leads to connection, and the connection is what leads to effective communication.
Thank you for reading this far.
Thank you for asking the questions.
Thank you for being a passionate member of the world.
When we personally focus on ‘Regulation before Connection before Communication’ and when mainstream media begin educating the Western world about supporting the emotional brain before trying to utilise cognitive brain I am CONVINCED we can change the collective narrative around anxiety and mental health.
Big hugs, Alli xx
“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably
the single most important aspect of mental health;
safe connections are fundamental to
meaningful and satisfying lives.” Bessel Van der Kolk
**Here are a bunch of experts in other areas of regulation whose work I personally admire and am happy to link you to…
For expert info about trauma and PTSD check out anything by Bessel Van der Kolk
For expert info about adult behaviours and regulation check out anything by Dr Nicole LePera
- Read up on this in the Handbook of Neurologic Music Therapy, Ed. Thaut & Hoemburg
- Check that out in This is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin
- As described in Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel Goleman