The term arousal refers to a state of awareness and readiness for action. Like nearly all such states, arousal must be maintained at the appropriate level for a given task in order for you to be effective. The optimal state of arousal in any situation, whether routine or an emergency, is that which energizes you for proper action, but doesn’t distract or hinder you from carrying out the task.
When there’s a perceived threat of any kind — ranging from life-threatening to a simple annoyance — your body activates the stress response, “fight or flight.” This natural response helps you prepare to respond to perceived physical or mental threats. However, too much arousal sends you into adrenaline overdrive and you can become scattered, panicked and unable to complete tasks effectively. When this happens, the goal is to decrease your arousal to an optimal level that is appropriate for the situation so you can perform at your best.
Here are some techniques for decreasing arousal level that you might consider:
- Learn to relax. Progressive muscle relaxation is used to monitor and control muscular tension. Here’s how you do it: Isolate one muscle group at a time, creating tension for eight to 10 seconds and then letting that muscle relax. This process is guaranteed to work because it’s based on a principle of physiology. Whenever you create tension in a muscle and then release the tension, the muscle has to relax. It doesn’t have a choice. The interesting aspect is that the muscle will not only relax back to its pre-tensed state, but if it’s allowed to rest, it will become even more relaxed than it was prior to tensing it.
- Breathe deeply. This technique is used to control the tension you carry in your body. By filling your lungs when you breathe, your diaphragm contracts downward and stimulates your vagus nerve, which triggers your body’s automatic relaxation response. Here’s how you do it: Take a deep inhalation into your belly while counting to five. Then very slowly exhale while pursing your lips. To get into a vagus nerve stimulation mode, try reducing the number of breaths to five to seven per minute.
- Center yourself. Centering is an ancient visualization technique popular in aikido. It teaches you to focus on the here and now, taking power away from outside concerns and negative thoughts. Here’s how you do it: Focus on breathing deeply. Then locate your “physical center of gravity,” which, in centering, is visualized as being about two inches below your navel. Once you’ve found it, take at least five deep breaths in and out. Continue to concentrate on your center and feel the sensation of being stabilized and on the ground. Finally, channel your energy into achieving your goal — think about what you want to achieve and focus on positive thoughts related to it.
- Control your attention. Attention can be either internal or external, and broad or narrow. When you’re focused inward (i.e., thoughts, emotions, physical sensations), you have an internal focus. When you’re focused on the environment (i.e., weather), you’re using an external focus. In terms of width, a broad focus is when you’re paying attention to many things at once (e.g., examining a suspect’s hands, your partner’s location, the backdrop), whereas focusing on a specific point (e.g., the barrel of a gun) is considered narrow. Here’s one way to practice: First, get into a comfortable position, somewhere that is as free of distractions as possible. Pick an object in the room — a picture, a lamp or even a spot on the wall. Try to keep all of your attention on this object, tuning out any other stimuli in the room. Hold that focus for as long as possible, then voluntarily shift your attention away from the object to another object in the room. Make that your focus of attention. Try this with a few other objects.
- Be mindful. Mindfulness helps train the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that creates a calm and alert state of mind. It helps us stay focused, avoid distraction and perform at our best. By bringing our attention inward, we also activate the insular cortex of the brain. As a result, we experience a heightened sense of awareness of our body and improve communication between the body and mind. This helps us sense physiological changes and make split-second adjustments even before we’re consciously aware of what’s going on (and before those factors impact our performance). Here’s one way to practice: Lie on your back with your eyes closed, palms up and legs relaxed. Bring your attention to your toes, noticing how they feel. Focus your attention here for a few breaths, then move on to the sole of your foot. Repeat the process as you travel up your ankle, calf, knee and thigh. Bring your attention to your right foot and repeat the process. Continue to move up your hips, lower back, stomach, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, neck and head — maintaining your focus on each body part and any sensations there. Breathe into any areas that are holding stress and try to release it.
- Use external cues. These include music and selective attention (e.g., spending your off hours at the beach). You can use these with the other techniques in order to have an overall greater cumulative effect.
If you would like support in learning how to decrease your arousal to an optimal level so you can engage in optimal performance, please contact the Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500 to schedule an appointment. Appointments and all consultations are confidential. To obtain additional information, visit our intranet site (http://intranet/intranet/ESS/Index.htm).