I spent some time away at Nova’s Ark this past March Break and again for two weeks this summer. To say that I learned a lot would a be huge understatement, because the culmination of my experiences there have profoundly impacted me.
How does a mental health oasis sound to you? Hopefully, good, as that’s what it was like being at Nova’s Ark for me. I was able to retreat from the stress of my daily life and get away to a place that encouraged me to think about and reflect upon my emotions. It was also a place that I felt comfortable to be myself and to focus on the things that I wanted to focus on.
The Zones of Regulation
I learned about The Zones of Regulation, “a concept to help [people] learn how to self-regulate. The Zones of Regulation creates a system to categorize how the body feels and emotions into four coloured zones with which people can easily identify”.
Skilled and carefully trained teachers and mentors helped me to articulate how I was feeling, to recognize my triggers, and to help develop my ‘toolbox’ for coping strategies. It sounds easy when I say it like that, but the reality is that figuring this stuff out is quite complex. As someone on the autism spectrum, I already struggle at putting words to how I’m feeling and what to do in stressful situations, so I felt like I had a lot to learn about how the zones applied to my life.
One of the first things I applied to my daily life was using my ‘toolbox’ of coping strategies. This was the easiest list to develop because I had already been implementing many of them in my life over a number of years (if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be where I am today) and so it was just a matter of being more intentional and proactive with my ‘toolbox’.
Zones = Rainbow
The next thing I learned is that The Zones of Regulation are not ONLY four colours, regardless of how much easier that would be, and I recognized that it’s much more complex.
This picture I drew gave me insight into how I interpret the zones. Think of this as a cross-section of my brain and the various sections represent the different parts of the brain, such as thinking, motor functions, sensory input etc. First off, there’s four basic colours: blue, green, yellow, and red. However, there are blends, shades, and brightness of these colours that would make it appear more like a rainbow.
Between yellow zone and red zone, there’s an orange zone and sometimes this better describes where I am at better than yellow or red could. Between green zone and yellow zone, there’s lighter green colour with some yellow mixed in etc. You can see in the picture that red and yellow have combined to form orange or blue and red have blended to make purples and pinks.
Even with one colour, such as red, there’s a variance in shades (from light to dark) and being able to differentiate between the shades within a zone is super helpful. The shades apply all the basic colours, plus the ones in-between (like orange, purple, and pink).
Each colour is also expressed in its degree of brightness and how much space it takes up in my ‘brain’. In addition to light and dark sections in my brain, there are also narrow and thick sections too. I would argue that thick, dark red sections are far worse than narrow, light red sections because of the intensity and the length that those bands represent. The darker sections are more problematic from an emotional perspective because it can be harder and take longer to recover from going into a thick, dark red zone. The coping strategies and tools in my box need to reflect the wide variety of zones within my brain and body.
The Green Zone
If you look again at the picture, you’ll see a diagonal band of green ‘brain’ that goes across the whole frame and all the other colours are intersecting with it. The green zone is my default state (and I would assume that for most people), but continuously throughout the day my brain is being challenged (or attacked) by various sensory, emotional, social, and physical inputs and I have to use the coping strategies in my ‘toolbox’ to regulate my responses. I cannot stop the external influx of stimuli to my brain, but I can internally help myself by using coping strategies. For example, sometimes my eyes are sensitive to the lights and my brain starts to go into the yellow zone because it’s an uncomfortable stimuli, but then I wear sunglasses to cope and my brain is no longer stressed and goes back into the green zone.
Parts of the Brain
I think that different parts of the brain and body can be in different zones at any given time. For example, my body might go into the blue zone if I’ve just finished playing sports, so it’ll be tired, but my mind might still be in the green zone because that’s a part of my brain that wasn’t stressed. I’m sure you can think of other examples of when a certain part of your body or brain are in different zones; this obviously adds a layer of complexity to figuring out triggers and coping strategies. There’s no predetermined time-limit of how long a particular part of your brain will remain in a certain zone or even how long it will take me to recover back to the green zone. Recognizing the transition from zone-to-zone is still something I am working on and it was helpful to be around skilled observers that would communicate clues to me throughout the day.
How Zones Help Me
Learning about The Zones of Regulation has helped me to better identify and articulate my feelings. This process has also help me refine my coping strategies to be more effective and therefore my quality of life has increased. Being in a supportive learning environment incubated my learning and allowed me to practice without failing, and this in turn has given me more confidence to face my daily challenges. I think that most people want to live well and if given the opportunity to learn and grow, they seize that moment with the hopes of becoming a better version of themselves. Another coping strategy that helps me is being around animals and Nova’s Ark provided that opportunity for me. Over the course of the few weeks that I was there, I got to know Ewok (a kinkajou) and we are kind of ‘friends’ and he loves to snuggle. My time at Nova’s Ark has left a positive impact on my mental health and I experienced relief knowing that the problems that I encounter with my emotions are, at worst, temporary and at best, solvable. Having the space and time to process my learning from Nova’s Ark has been and will continue to be a tremendous asset in my daily life; I cannot wait to go back!