A wonderful dog behaviorist we’ve worked with demonstrates a method of settling an excited puppy. It looks like magic. The trainer explains that on the contrary, it’s nature at work. When the human’s nervous system is calm and regulated, that ‘message’ will be telegraphed to the canine’s. Calm ensues. A dog trained to SETTLE will calm themselves from the excited state that is common to puppies. This is then, for the moment, a pup with a regulated nervous system.
It really is a thing a beauty to watch what can be a most exasperating canine state of excitement change to calm that is pleasing for human and canine. The trainer will model the drawing of the pup’s focus to him, away from the exciting things in the environment. The calm that happens seems to be a space of disconnect from stimulation. The calm puppy is happy, according to the trainer, as compared to tail madly wagging, jumping around that we humans take for dog happiness, but which in fact is a stressed state.
This settling move can be of use to us humans, who share the mammal nervous system with canines. Like our mammal friends, our NS is constantly active, assessing safety and danger cues in the environment. Calm ‘happens’ when that detection system finds nothing to activate over, therefore gives the whole body the signal that vigilance can be relaxed. This is home base.
Where we differ from our canine friends is in relative size and function of pre-frontal cortex. Our much larger one creates worlds of mental state variations on not-calm. As a consequence we humans are vulnerable to activating perturbations from both the external environment AND from within. Those activations frequently take us over. Overwhelm is a common ~ and painful ~ experience.
But calm for us is the same as calm for our canines ~~ reduced activation of nervous system stress reactivity. And settling an activated state works about the same way: We tune our sensors out of the activations and stimulations, and into the sense of the body, breathing and grounded on the earth. This move does not require us to have whipped the external or internal stressors into shape. It also doesn’t mean we’ve turned our back on our distress, minimized, denied, or fixed it.
Rather we’ve provided our system with the space of a moment of disconnect, inside of which is calm. Like training our puppy, this must be practiced repeatedly in order for it to become a neural pathway, like flying down a good sledding hill in the groove made by lots of sled rides before.
So go ahead, give it a try. Pause and take yourself offline for a moment. Stand or sit. Bring attention to your body in space. Feel its weight held up by the chair you are sitting on, or over your feet. Put a hand over your heart and notice your chest rising with the inhale and relaxing with the exhale. Listen for the sounds around you. Settle.
This post dedicated to D.H.