Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Regulating You

Houses do it with thermostats and heating systems. Cars do it with tachometers and automatic transmissions. Dogs do it by panting. Governments do it with internal audits and reprimands.

Sometimes we do it well.

Sometimes we don't. Nonetheless, we all self-regulate.

For us humans, self-regulation is something that we do in response to what we perceive as too much or too little stimulation of one or more of our sensory systems. You get hot and you perspire. You get cold and you shiver. An ambulance races by, it siren blaring and you cover your ears. You step into a shower that is hotter than you anticipated and you jump out or you try to deflect the water with your hands. You mistake wasabi for guacamole and you quickly scan the table for something to drink (poor regulation) or some ginger (better regulation).

Self-regulation allows us to operate in multiple, diverse environments. Without self regulation, we would be quite limited in where we could go and what we could do.

Across the Spectrum
An inability to regulate well is at the core of challenges such as autism and ADHD. By well, I refer to a manner that is socially acceptable and sustainable. A child with autism walking in circles muttering is simply trying to manage an over-abundance of sensory stimuli. A child with ADHD who is bouncing off the walls is trying to manage a shortage of sensory stimuli. We see the atypical behavior as the fundamental problem and we're tempted to correct it. However, you might as well tell someone who has just jumped out a scalding shower to jump back in. The naked person tripping through the shower curtain and pulling down the rod is a side-effect of a more fundamental problem, water that is too hot.

With autism and ADD, a child is simply doing something that works her, but perhaps not for everyone else.

There are cases, where we regulate in a manner that is socially acceptable, but doesn't work or perhaps over-works. For example, we regulate hunger by eating. We regulate stress by drinking. We regulate depression by sleeping. There are entire industries dedicated to helping us regulate and then others that help us respond to having over-regulated.

To be clear, phrases like autism and attention deficit disorder are misleading, first and foremost because the words imply that autism and ADD exist. They don't. They're simply ways of classifying groups of people who experience similar challenges with self-regulation. The people within each classification vary vastly in their challenges with self-regulation and the resultant challenges with socialization. Yet, we tend to lump them together.

In a very simple way of thinking, you might consider autism to be at one end of self-regulation spectrum (too much stimulation) and ADD to be at the other (too little stimulation). Although this is overly simple (our regulation challenges vary from sense to sense and in combination of senses), it may help to better understand your regulatory challenges and those of people around you.

Regulatory Me
I would be placed in the ADD category. I am generally under-stimulated: way under-stimulated. Sitting at dinner making small talk is akin to being thrown into a tub of ice-water and told to enjoy the bath. On the one hand, everything inside me is screaming, "Get out of here", on the other hand, everything I've been taught is that I should enjoy being with people and show some appreciation.

So, rather than jumping out of the tub, I try to heat the water. In the case of brain-numbing conversation, my heating techniques tend toward provocation, asking questions or making statements that elicit a response that has at least an inkling of emotional attachment. It works for me, but is often less socially acceptable than walking in circles mumbling or bouncing off the walls.

For me, being tired exacerbates my sensitivity to the absence of stimuli and this can be quite confusing. I become more animated (and apparently more energetic) as I become more fatigued. I get tired; I go faster.

For me, world generally feels like it's moving in slow motion and this may sound a bit ridiculous, but the physical sensation is akin to being stuffed into a closet full of coats and having the door shut. It's a sense of suffocation; the dearth of stimuli might as well be a dearth of oxygen.

As I write this, I realize that I've never really articulated the sensation before. It sounds so extreme and I should be able to control myself. But as write I'm thinking, "Yeah, that pretty much captures it."

Over the years, as an alternative to provoking the shit out of anyone who happens to be sitting across from me at dinner, I've learned to regulate chemically: the three chemicals being endorphins, aderall and alcohol. When I know I've got a long evening ahead, I work out hard for a solid hour and I'm good to go (at least for a few hours). If I have a day of meetings, I delay taking my aderall until about twenty minutes before we begin. If I can't work out and I've already gone through my day's allotment of aderall, I beat the conversation to the punch by self-numbing my brain with a couple of glasses of wine.

So, those are my self-regulation strategies. They all work, but to varying degrees and with varying side-effects. And of course, some are more socially acceptable than others.

I realize as I write this that one of my greatest challenges in self-regulation has been judging the fact that I need to regulate in the first place. As a result, I've dismissed the physical experience as ridiculous or something that I should be able to handle. Seeing it as no different than seeing a kid with autism flapping her fingers in order to feel comfortable in the face of too much stimulation somehow makes the whole experience different for me. I'm gonna think some more about this.

So, where are you on the self-regulation spectrum? In what situations are you over-stimulated? In what situations are you under-stimulated? What are your regulatory procedures?

Happy Tuesday!


  1. I typed a long response and it disappeared... I think I'll use my post this week to think about this more. Some days I'm intentional about regulating myself and so I avert a crisis by staying on the ball. What I'm not sure about is how to regulate in the crisis without leaving the crisis or speeding up to fix everything. Sounds like Jaedon... I'm very autistic. When PMSing, my intention to be intentional escapes me.

  2. Faith,
    I think for me, the hardest time to regulate is after the point where it would have been really nice to have regulated. You know, like moderating the flow of water before the dam bursts.

    All my good thinking has been in regard to, "OK, next time!" But, perhaps it's time to get good at regulating after the fact? You know, rather than avoiding the bar, learning how to put down the drink as it leaves the table heading towards your lips.



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