From Shutdown to Sheer Panic and the Sometimes Elusive Middle Ground: A Primer on Affect

"Affect" refers to your internal emotional state. It’s the felt sense of what is happening in your body. Affect is both an embodied, physiological reality reflecting the level of activation of the autonomic nervous system, and a subjective emotional experience ranging from numb and shutdown (the freeze response), through relaxed attentiveness, on to panicked and frenzied (the fight-flight response). 

In other words, affect is your moment to moment experience of being embodied. It’s what you are feeling right now on the inside, both physiologically and emotionally. Affect is experienced as internal body sensation.

Nothing is more relevant to your moment to moment experience of being alive than your affect. Neuroscientist Daniel Hill puts it like this:  

“Affect is at the core of our being, a measure of our heart. It excites us and deflates us, connects us and distances us from others. It organizes us and undoes us.” 

Affect on a Scale of 1-10

Think of affect on a scale of 1-10, where 1 represents completely numb and shut down and 10 represents sheer panic. On this scale, 5-6 represents a slight feeling of relaxed excitement—alert, present, and attentive. (Hopefully, you are in the 5-6 range right now!) 

In the 1-3 range, your body is in a state of low arousal marked by emotions (shame, hopelessness, and/or despair) and bodily sensations, (a sense of numbness or being shut down, shallow breathing, difficulty concentrating, sleepiness).

In the 8-10 range, your body is in a state of high arousal also marked by emotions (panic, terror, and/or rage) and bodily sensations (a racing heart, faster breathing, a tightening in the chest or stomach, a sense of jitteriness).

Most of us are more conscious of being dysregulated in high arousal states. Sometimes the first clue suggesting a low arousal state is the absence of high arousal body sensations. 

Dysregulation

The term “dysregulation” refers to your bodily state when you are outside the 4-7 zone. Thus, you are dysregulated when you feel numb and shut down (in the 1-3 range, also called hypo-arousal), and you are also dysregulated when you feel panicked and frenzied (in the 8-10 range, also called hyper-arousal). Though the manifestation of hypo- or hyper-arousal appears very different, both are evidence of dysregulation. 

Everyone gets dysregulated. However, some people get dysregulated more frequently than others and with more subtle stimuli. When you become dysregulated, your body’s greatest need is to return to a regulated state in that 4-7 zone.

You can return to regulation independent of others or by interacting with others. Self-regulation simply means bringing your body back into the 4-7 zone from either hypo- or hyper-arousal.

People with a history of trauma/abuse have an impaired ability to self-regulate. As a result, one consequence of trauma is the common experience of being at the mercy of your emotions and bodily sensations.

Dysregulation Isolates Us

When dysregulated, you are likely to behave in ways that alienate others. Yet when you are stuck in dysregulation, what you need most is connection with another person. This cycle of dysregulation and alienating behavior can lead to an immense sense of powerlessness since you are unable to make the dysregulation stop (and return to a calm and centered place) which increases the dysregulation and makes changing your behavior even more difficult.

This dynamic is perhaps one of the most agonizing byproducts of trauma—feeling at the mercy of bodily sensations that make you react in ways that alienate people at the very moment you most need connection with them. 

Next Steps

For a more in-depth explanation of affect regulation, consider reading the amazingly insightful (and horribly titled) book Affect Regulation Theory by Daniel Hill.

copyright © 2017 Adam Young