High Arousal and Vigilance

High arousal is a mental trait, but it strongly drives the body. High arousal always exists with sympathetic shift but sympathetic shift does not always exist with high arousal. High arousal is different than 'flight or fight' in that it is a conscious readiness for a threat, as opposed to an acute or chronic response to a threat. High arousal probably has to do with a 'hot' amygdala in the limbic system. The amygdala influences the thinking cortex much more than the other way around, so it is not effective to try to lower arousal by cognitive means. Rather, the amygdala is best cooled from 'below' by autonomic re-regulation.

The physiology of arousal produces the phenomenology of threat. High arousal produces a strong vigilance and distrust about other people and situations. High arousal causes any frustration to be experienced as a major betrayal, or evidence of the bad intentions of others. Neutral transactions often escalate into upset and dispute when one or more of the participants has high arousal. Past a threshold, hig arrousal is self-perpetuating. One sign of high arousal is a tendency to raise the voice often. Another sign is a tendency to try to control situations (with the sincere intent of benefiting everyone, but with the inevitable result of conflict).

A person with high arousal is experienced by others as intense. Often the high arousal is ego dystonic, and is part of an ideology of life that emphasizes danger, threat, and betrayal. High arousal seems to derive from prolonged exposure to active danger--abuse, chaotic upbringing, sexual abuse, extensive medical interventions, etc... People with high arousal have not been traditional psychotherapy clients because high arousal usually defeats consistent routines, especially in the context of a relationship. Moreover, serious talk almost always leads to flooding if high arousal is present. Think of the metaphor of a radio. If different emotions are the different types of music played on different stations, and arousal is the volume dial, then high arousal is like turning the sound on a radio way up--any emotion will be distorted and painful. Work on better reception and new stations is pointless until the volume gets turned down.

That is why bodywork is excellent for high arousal. Because it works from the 'bottom up,' from the body to the brainstem then the limbic system, it can be soothing in a way that attempts at soothing talk cannot be. However, at least four obstacles present themselves. First, It is hard to do much body work with a distrustful person. They may initially agree, but small instructions to do something differently can be received defensively since it may seem someone else is trying to control. Second, a method that does not provide quick results runs up against the sense of urgency that high arousal imposes. Third, high arousal produces an intense other focus and external focus. People with high arousal want to focus on the people and situations that seem to be the difficulty. The self-focus that most bodywork is organized around is resisted. Fourth, being told what to do with the body is experienced as especially intrusive, even more so if the format is less permissive and includes a lot of correction.

As a culture we have become very threat-centric. This might represent an increase in the average level of arousal. It skews community life because anything in the form of a threat is responded to strongly, taking resources and attention away from nurture. The 'opportunity costs' of hunting threats are cast aside.