Hypoarousal – Taking your proverbial ball and going home

Hypoarousal is a physiological state where your body slows down. Hypoaroused states include the feelings of sadness, irritability, and low grade nervousness. I think all of them involve a sense that one has lost and can’t reverse it by going into a hyperaroused state. The default position is to slow down one’s body in order to at least conserve energy. Think of the lioness you see on wilddlife programs that excitedly anticipates being able to get her prey. She tries to chase it down but as soon as she realizes that she will not not be able too, she stops and slowly walks away. She doesn’t remain in a hyperaroused state and run around all agaitated because she lost her prey, she shifts immediately to conserving energy, which is important since she isn’t eating anytime soon. She lost, so it is time to conserve what she has. Think of the child who keeps getting frustrated that he can’t win playing with the bigger neighborhood kids, so he picks up his ball and walks home, cutting his losses. He’s either sad and crying, irritable and muttering to himself, or nervous about being lonely.

Sadness is the awareness that our bodies are preparing to survive a period of deprivation. It involves a focus on the past and what has been lost. Irritability is more  focused on how bad one feels right now about the loss, while low grade nervousness focuses more on what might happen in the future as a result of the loss.    Irritability and nervousness  are the hypoaroused versions of anger and fear.

We are not calm at these times or at peace. Our bodies are forcefully shutting down. It doesn’t feel good. Our thoughts at these times tend to exaggerate the loss and/or impending deprivation. Hypoarousal also has a social purpose in that it tends to provoke concern and action in our allies, and sometimes mercy in our adversaries. We show our need to  the former, and remove all sense of threat to the latter. We might also get finished off by our adversary, but generally our chances are better than if we had continued along the path of hyperarousal, where we’d probably lose anyways and likely inspire more extreme wrath.

Just like hyperaroused states, hypoaroused ones are involuntary. Once again, it is the tendency to indulge in it that creates problems. Mercy once from an adversary might be reconsidered a short time later. Allies moved by compassion might grow weary of helping not to mention question your value as an ally.

So it comes back to back to finding a way to get yourself into a good space emotionally, where you are alert and decisive,   yet calm and flexible.



3 Responses to “Hypoarousal – Taking your proverbial ball and going home”

  1. JVHCP Says:

    “Spot on” Diddly. I appreciate how clear you’ve made it. In my line of work, it could be a good handout. Thanks.


  2. Kiesha Says:

    Good article, but I am confused by your saying that hypoarousal is involuntary, yet one “indulges” in it.


    • diddly Says:

      I agree that what I wrote is confusing. We don’t have direct control over hypoarousal, there is no button to push. Indirectly, we can influence it. But ultimately, what seemed to work yesterday may not work today. Indulgence may be a poor choice of words, may even seem perjorative. But somehow, I think we have a duty to try to influence our arousal state when appropriate – alarm clocks come to mind. If you know ahead of time that an alarm clock isn’t going to be enough to rouse you, are you really off the hook, or are you guilty of indulging yourself by repeating the same mistake over and over and hoping the alarm will work? Chronic hypoarousal, or depression, might cloud the thinking required to really identify the problem with the alarm clock – they may just think they are destined to be late and that ‘nothing works – I’m too depressed.” That is the fine line we therapist walk with clients – comforting the disturbed, and disturbing the comfortable.


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