Understand Emotional Arousal, Heal Your Relationships

When girls first start a residential treatment program, they often don’t know how to regulate their emotions.  They are unable to work through the typical emotional cycle to reach a peaceful state.  We call this cycle Emotional Arousal.

By learning about emotional arousal, you can learn to better support your daughter as she learns emotional regulation.

Emotional Arousal

Emotional Arousal is a state of heightened physiological activity.  This includes having strong emotions like anger and fear and we go to the emotional arousal state in response to our daily experiences.  For example the fight, flight or freeze response is a state of emotional arousal.

Some people come into this world with their emotional arousal response on high alert.  For others it takes a lot to trigger their emotional arousal response.  However we come into this world, our emotional arousal isn’t set in stone.  It develops throughout our life.  Arousal starts with a Nature component as a hardwired response to our experiences.  That emotional arousal then develops over time as a reaction to a lifetime of experiences.

There are a number of factors that influence the development of our emotional arousal, including Attachment Styles and Relational Feedback Loops

Attachment Styles

Everyone has an attachment style that affects the way we interact with others.  As parents our attachment styles influence every interaction we have with our children.  Our children then take all their interactions with us, combine them with their predisposed genetic temperament and develop their own attachment style.

Attachment styles typically fall in one of four categories: secure, anxious, avoidant or anxious-avoidant.  Below is an illustration of how these attachment styles develop depending on a child’s emotional state or arousal and a parent’s responsiveness or approach:

 

Low ArousalHigh Arousal
High Parental ResponsivenessSecureAnxious
Low Parental ResponsivenessAvoidantAvoidant-Anxious

Attachment style is rarely an exclusive form of secure, avoidant or anxious. Rather, attachment is usually a combination of two or all three forms.  What is important to know is that you can still influence your daughter’s attachment style.  Every interaction you have with her contributes to her attachment style development.

Relational Feedback Loops

Infants and parents can go through what we call a bidirectional feedback loop.  One loop looks like this:

  1. Infants with a higher temperamental baseline of arousal may be fussy and difficult.  This may also be a result of physiological difficulties such as trouble digesting
  2. This fussiness leads to parents becoming tired, frustrated, and less responsive.
  3. As parents become less responsive to the infant’s needs the infant will likely become more anxious manifesting in more fussing and so on.

The inverse is also true.  If we are able to remain highly responsive the infant learns to trust this responsiveness.  The baby knows it will have her needs met on a consistent basis.

Conditioning Emotional Arousal

How do Attachment Styles and Relational Feedback Loops tie back to emotional arousal?  Levels of arousal can be conditioned and reconditioned, meaning that if we are anxious in relationships we can be reconditioned through consistency, validation, and love.  We can help our daughters to have less anxiety in their relationships by forming a more secure attachment style.

How to Help Your Daughter

  1. Be Responsive- Listen when your daughter is talking to you.  Stop multi-tasking, put away your phone and turn off the TV.  Take action if you need to.  Sometimes this means giving your daughter a hug.  Other times it means holding a boundary with her.
  2. Validate- When your daughter shares her emotions with you, actively recognize those emotions.  You don’t need to judge or solve the emotion.  Just strive to show your daughter that you love her and understand what she is feeling.
  3. Be Consistent- This one is hard for parents.  We are imperfect humans and make mistakes.  Do your best to respond to situations the same way you did before.  If you need to change your response, talk with your daughter and explain what to expect going forward.  Then be consistent.  Some area’s to be consistent in:
    • Holding boundaries
    • Providing Clear Expectations
    • Giving Praise

This process of healing through reconditioning is possible.  It requires concerted, consistent, effort, and lots of time to achieve, but it is absolutely possible to alter our baselines of arousal as it manifests in our attachment style.

 

-written by Allen Richards, CSW, Therapist at Sunrise Residential Treatment Center