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Therapy Lingo

high activation

Triggered Again...here's "activation" in action smiley-wink.gif

Isn't that hilarious...

How to recognize if you're activated

Have you ever been in a car that's revving too high? The engine is turning over and burning excessive fuel. Think of high activation as a nervous system that's revving too high. 

Each of us has a threshold for what we can tolerate after which we start using "coping" strategies such as anger, emotional outbursts, addictions etc. to get us through the day.

"It's just too much. I can't take one more thing." How many of us have had a moment in our lives where we felt like this?

Activation is a way to measure that threshold. It's a term that's often used in body psychotherapy and refers to the level of arousal in the nervous system. You're experiencing high activation when you're feeling "wound up" inside.

Common signs of high activation

After attunement, "activation" is probably the most important concept on this site. Your understanding of activation can give you an appreciation for how change occurs in the brain, and how you can use it to your advantage in your counseling.

Activation is the body-felt sense of arousal or body-felt experience of your nervous system in action. You generally feel activation through the wide range of sensations associated with the muscles and the fascia.

Since you're reading this text, then technically, by definition, your nervous system is activated. It's operating automatically and naturally, ideally using just enough energy to keep you going.

But most of us use the term to describe the times when we're feeling more activated than normal for instance, "I was so activated after the party, I couldn't sleep" or "Man, that guy was activated. He couldn't sit still."

Feeling tired all the time? High activation is associated with adrenal gland depletion. To learn more skip to bottom of page.

A New Way of Looking At...

The Autonomic Nervous System

As I have mentioned elsewhere on this site, your sense of well-being is a reflection of the health of your nervous system. And your activation level is a measure of the condition of the nervous system as it presently operates.

Here's one way to look at it:

Imagine for a moment that your body is a container. When your nervous system is maxed-out we say your level of activation is high, that the container is overflowing. When you are relaxed and have enough energy to take on the day, we say your level of activation is low, that the container is below capacity.

I can also picture my activation level as the intensity with which my body is "buzzing". Some of us are buzzing continually. We're wired. We're so wired that it's exhausting for people to be around us, except for those who are buzzing at the same level - they feel right at home in our company!

What you need to understand

For the purposes of counseling, we can think of activation as the physical effect of the nervous energy that gets triggered above a baseline level. By the way, that baseline level is unique to every indivdual, although it can be lowered using the right counseling.

Technically speaking, activation is the normal state of the autonomic nervous system. Activation means energy is flowing throughout your body. But problems arise when that triggered energy is excessive, chronic, unnecessary, or out of proportion to a situation.

Activation and the right brain

Our culture places a high value on left brain functioning, "being in our head", especially the ability to think, to solve problems and to verbalize thoughts.

It is believed that a balance of both the right and left brain creates a sense of well-being.

But it is the right brain that largely determines a "fine-tuned" quality of life. You're "in your right brain" whenever you look at a work of art, or take in the beauty of nature, or enjoy the first sensations of a hot bath. You're also "in your right brain" when you're closely connected with someone and feeling 'good vibrations'

Many problems that surface in psychotherapy are right brain-based. Ironically, people try to change right brain-based behaviours with left brain reasoning, or will power. (The diet industry is sustained by this fallacy, which is why I believe most diets are doomed to fail...but I digress!).

Body sensations are an indication of activation.

One of the surest ways to be in right brain is to be consciously aware of your bodily sensations.

Many people don't understand what it means to feel their normal body sensations from moment to moment. They notice them only when symptoms or sensations break into awareness (e.g. "I feel achy when I have the flu" or "I love the feeling when I first get into the bath").

In fact, some people will be freaked out by any sensation that they haven't felt before. In general, the higher the activation level the more uncomfortable we will be with unfamiliar body sensations.

This reality is even more ironic when you consider how body-obsessed our culture has become. We think a lot about our bodies, but we rarely take the time to feel their sensations.

Activation is automatic, and natural

Activation can be understood as the energetic state of the nervous system that sustains us automatically, like breathing or blood flow. It operates by itself (that's what "autonomic" implies) and it's a good thing that it does. Because a nervous system that automatically takes care of indispensable body functions frees us up to pursue more important things in our lives (Like...where did I leave those keys?).

As I mentioned above, we become aware of activation only when it reaches a certain intensity. That is, only when it breaks through the normal chatter in our heads. "Oh, (I just noticed that) my shoulders are tense."

Let's illustrate this concept with an example.

Charlie was explaining what happened to him last night…

I'm in a sales presentation that I've done a hundred times before.

But I was so activated that my mind was going blank."

"What a day! Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I'm so activated I don't think I can take on another thing."

"I met this really nice woman, but when she agreed to go out with me I started stammering like a shmuck. I was so activated."

Familiar signs of high activation

We'll notice activation when we feel "keyed up" inside. It's as if our nervous system is as tight as a coil. Here are other signs:

  • Muscle tightness is the most common way we identify activation. We often feel it in our neck or when our shoulders are pulled up.
  • Flushed face.
  • Alterations in respiration - breathing becomes shallow or irregular
  • Differences in temperature throughout the body.
  • Heart racing or steadily pounding.
  • Tingling sensations.
  • Numbness in parts or all of the body.
  • Foggy brain or strange sensations in the head.
  • Feeling shaky.....

and many more sensations too numerous to cite. Notice that if taken to the extreme these symptoms are characteristic of anxiety. And indeed they are related. Anxiety is basically a chonic state of high activation!

Keep in mind that other systems in the body (e.g. endocrine system, immune system) can cause the same sensations and actions. I can have a foggy mind as a result of dehydration, for instance. Medications which can act in ways similar to body systems can also affect your state of activation.

Your activation at any given moment depends on:

  1. The capacity of your nervous system to process and discharge stimulation (in other words, how regulated it is). This depends on several factors such as your trauma and developmental history; and
  2. What's happening with you right now in relation to the contents of your "container" (i.e. how much stimulation has accumulated in your nervous system up to this moment in time). Are you alone? With others? Stressed? Chilled out? End of day? Beginning? Full day? Relaxed day?

High activation and feeling tired

The state of your activation reflects the health of your nervous system. It reflects how you manage energy.

Like a car that's revving too high, a nervous system that's too activated is using up way too much energy. The nervous system is in a state of readiness for fight flight and using up stores of hormonal energy from the viscera. This means you have less energy to live your life as you wish to do.

And by the way, prolonged high activation can exhaust the adrenal glands. The reason is that high activation is associated with the fight flight response and the adrenal glands provide the hormonal charge for this survival mechanism.

So, if you're running with high activation, be sure to ask about your adrenal health the next time you're in to see your local naturopath.

 

Related Reading

High Activation and Reading

High Activation Means You're Floodedsmiley-smile.gif

Reference

Levine, Peter, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.

Interesting Link

Somatics

Includes several articles that illustrate how to use Seishindo practices to understand your somatic / body language. Explains how the work of somatic practitioners heightens your intuition, compassion, and empathy, and improves your professional and personal relationships.

Are you taking the Science of Psychotherapy Tour ?

Click on the Implicit Memory link below:

Introduction
What's with the Reptile?
The Right Brain
Activation
Implicit Memory

Procedural Memory
Joy

Or view the other Therapy Lingo terms:

 

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Reader Comments

Carol (Ontario, Canada)

I Googled in the question: "What happens when a patient is attracted to her psychiatrist?" and found your link, despite you being a psychotherapist. I've been through CBT and it didn't work, not for me. I had homework and it just didn't pan out.

Carol

I can certainly relate to your experience Carol. CBT "sounds" good however based on how the brain works, it'd be very unusual for CBT to get at the deeper parts of the brain where most folks need the change to come from.

So I hope you don't feel that you "failed the treatment". I worry about that because it's so popular folks among psychiatrists and psychologists I imagine CBT ends up making people that's all there is and/or worse, end up blaming themselves instead of the model it's based on.

By the way, in case you didn't already find this, here's an article on transference.

Thanks for your comment.

Shrinklady


No One Understood

everything seem rite on, it has helped me because no one understood and dr. didnt help and i felt all the sines .

Im 51 and started my staring 20 yrs ago, lots of depression. Im scared now and have for awhile. I also have nerve tingles in arms,hands,legs and feet,mostly in right side.

can you help with information.thanks for caring to help other.

amanda, oklahoma city, okalhoma, usa

Thanks Amanda for sharing. your story. I'll try to respond in the next couple weeks.

Take care,

Shrinklady


Fall asleep after drawing (Singapore)

I like to draw, paint and ink since I was born. But I always feel very exhausted, burned and tired after every drawing session. I would feel absorb to the drawing and I were someehow unaware of the passage of time pasted. I'm always fall alsleep in the mid of drawing. Because I will feel very tired and sleepy. Relax mode.

Hence this have defer me from joining the art industry. I have been reading book about the right brain. And all said that drawing (right brain mode) is suppose to pleasurable, alert but relax. But non have state the after effect that I felt after that.

I feel very lose and helpless because I love to draw. But I don dare to step into the industry because I do not understand my condition. Help me please.

Thank you. Shirly

Oh, what an interesting question Shirly. I do hope you find a solution so you can bring your artwork more into the world.

It's always a little hard to see the big picture with only a few details so this may or may not fit for you. Here's my best guess for what may be happening. 

My first thoughts are that you may be doing a lot of emotional work in your drawing and it's tapping you out. You can't do right brain activities without tapping into your emotions as they arise from the same place you see.

It's like you're triggering yourself. This can be very healing however if the material isn't being processed then it's merely arising, then flooding you and sending you into a dissociative state (i.e. feeling sleepy).

I'd also be tempted to ask, if it is the case that in general, you are buzzing pretty high? Would you say for instance that your body is fairly tight? Do you experience anxiousness or muscle tension?

If yes, then I would suggest that the pleasure of drawing allows your body to let go. I've seen this many times in my practice. As folks tap into a relaxed state and as the nervous system unwinds, they feel a wave of tiredness.

In my Brain Coaching Program I teach folks that this is the time to track their body sensations as they unwind...and to go with the comfy. 

You see, as the nervous system lets go, it allows the tired feelings underneath the bound up energy to surface (it takes a lot of energy to keep the body in a state of readiness for fight or flight survival - the main reason for anxiety and tension in the body).

If this is correct, then one remedy is to do a bit drawing at a time (i.e. titrate) so you can help reset your nervous system and over time reach a lower level of activation. You may do a lot of sleeping however, at some point, your body will have let go sufficiently for you to stay awake.

And then there's another idea. You came into this world with this talent. It may have gotten tied up inadvertently with a traumatic incident that gets triggered each time you get into your drawing....in which case, you start to dissociate. You might ask your parents if they can recall anything. In this case, again titration is necessary however, the help of a good therapist is important.

In fact, a body based therapist would probably be helpful in all possibilities above.

Then there is one more possibility. Your drawing may tap into something spiritual that is not yet resolved. This is an area I'm unfamiliar with however I'll leave that for you to explore furthur.

Hope these suggestions are helpful and I wish you all the best,

Shrinklady


Sammie

Wow! I really gained a lot of knowledge from your site and I plan on doing further research, thanks. I've been in therapy for about a year now and as I've looked around on here, a lot of things just make sense and I'm like, "hey, that's me!"

Thanks for sharing your specialty.

Sammie


Rin

i fear of driving. I just think that whenever i drive the car the police going to stopped me for whatever reasons. Not just the police, maybe other drivers or for some other reasons.

Sometimes when i meet people i always think what others will talk about me. It makes me so nervous. I just don't know whats happening to me. Need your guide.

Rin

Hello Rin, it sounds as if you're super-charged on the road and your brain is trying to make sense of it. The higher our activation the more the left brain will attempt to match the internal charge with something (i.e. the police, other drivers etc.) outside of us. We easily attribute it as the cause of our distress.

It's like the brain is trying to understand why we're so amped up. Whatever might seem plausible, works. It can be a misattribution or misinterpretation or it can be bang on.

How it's showing up Rin in your life is characteristically related to your history. So, I'm wondering if you've had a motor vehicle accident? If so then your reactions make sense. Or perhaps you haven't connected the dots. With trauma, we can't always make those associations.

Just to make it more complex...sometimes the seemingly "smallest" of events can be the cause of trauma symptoms. For example a fender bender can be the cause of a post trauma syndrome. High activation while driving can certainly persist if this is the case. You see, the size of our reaction to a traumatic event depends to a great extent on the state of our nervous system at the time the event occured.

It might also be the case that you are transferring nervous system activation onto authority figures. In other words, your fears of others while driving might be explained through some unresolved issues with authorities. It might be a good idea to take a look at the article on authority issues to see if anything there resonates with you.

At the end of the day Rin, therapy is your best bet for sorting this out.

Good luck,

Shrinklady


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