Seven Levels of Arousal
There is a useful map to our emotions called “The Seven Levels of Arousal”. This is from a researched named Als.
A road map helps understand how to get where we want to go, gives us assurance we are on the right track, and helps us correct when we are headed the wrong direction, Als’s Seven Levels of Arousal is a road map of emotional states. It can help us stay on track to avoid high anxiety and panic.
First, what is arousal. Arousal has to do with how “reved up” we are. Think of your car, when it is going sixty miles an hour on the interstate, the engine is reved up more than when you are going ten miles an hour through a parking lot.
How do you control how reved up your car’s engine is? By how much gasoline you cause to go into the engine, by pressing on the accelerator.
Like gas going into the engine, you and I get more “reved up” when more stress hormones - adrenalin, cortosols, primarily - are released into the brain and into the body.
The lowest level of arousal, level one, is “deep sleep”, not even dreaming . . . no hormones at all to rev you up.
Level two is called “active sleep”. A tiny bit of stress hormones are released by the body clock to rev you up just a bit, enough to dream.
Level three is called “drousy”. A bit more hormone is released and you start to wake up.
Level four is “awake”. Enough hormone is pumping through the brain and body to cause you to be wide away, BUT not enough hormone - as yet - to get you ready to do mental work. So Als calls level for awake NOT processing, and then when a bit MORE stress hormone flows in, enough for you to do real mental work, that is called “awake processing”.
So let’s be sure this is clear. Level four is awake and nothing more. Level five is awake plus fully mentally active.
So let’s say you are at the office, and you are having a good day. You don’t have any worries to get in the way of focusing on your work. You could say you have 100% of your mind available. But that’s not quite the case.
If you know much about computers you know that, though you have a lot of RAM - random access memory - built into your computer, you never have it ALL available to run some program you want to run. Why? Because the basic operating system uses some.
We are like that too. There are some very basic things we do ALL the time pretty much all the time. And, because we do these things continuously, we don’t notice them; we aren’t aware - necessarily - that we are doing them.
What are they? We maintain, constantly, a concept of who we are. Just as a word represents a certain object . . . let’s say a ball . . . when you think the word ball, you may picture a ball. You concept of ball-ness involves words, and images. And if it is a certain kind of ball, such as a baseball, certain texture, stitching, color, etc.
We also maintain - constantly - a concept of who we are. And when we try to talk about what that concept is, we don’t find it easy to put into words. Still, you know you are you and not someone else. As in, “I’m Chevvy Chase, and you’re not.” Right?
What else do we do constantly? We maintain a sense of where we are. It maintain a sort of map in our minds of the room we are in, where the doors are, where the light switch is, and how to get from here to the bathroom, or the kitchen, of outside to where the car is. In the car, we maintain a sense of where we are in town, and how to get to the supermarket and back home again.
Is there anything else? Yes. We constantly maintain a sense of time.
So, these three things; who we are, where we are, and time. In psychological work, we call it orientation times three, or orientation in PPT, P for person, P for place and T for time. In a psychiatric evaluation, questions are asked to determine if a person has these basic function working or not. For example, I might ask a new client, “who are you?” That might make the client think I’m crazy, because I have their chart right there, but I want to know if the client knows who they are. If they answer, Jesus Christ, or Julius Caesar, I’m going to make a note that they have orientation in person, . . . who they are. Then I might ask “What is the name of the president of the United States?” And if they say, “Jimmy Carter,” I know they have lost orientation in terms of time. And if I ask them a question about where we are, and they can’t answer it, I’m going to figure the person is unable to maintain orientation in place.
Maintaining such basic orientation takes a certain amount of mental work. Let’s say you have one hundred units of mental capacity, and that maintaining orientation in PPT takes up ten of those units. That leaves you 90 units to work with. So on a good day, what you think of as having 100% of your mind available to focus as you choose, you are working with 90 units.
That’s level five.
Now level six. Level six is called “agitation”. What this means is, some emotion is entering the picture. It could be a positive emotion. It could be a negative emotion. Remember Elvis Presley’s “I’m all shook up?” That song is about POSITIVE agitation. But a negative agitation could be fear, anxiety, worry, anger . . . .
Now, let’s say you are in level five . . . no emotion . . . and then a small emotion enters the picture, say ten units worth. This means you have moved from level five to level six. And in level six, with ten units of mental capacity taken over by that emotion, you have 80 units of mental capacity still at your disposal.
That doesn’t slow you down enough to notice. But what if it is a BIG emotion. . . once that takes over eighty units of emotional capacity; that leaves you only ten to work with. That definitely slows you down. But what if the emotion gets bigger. What if the emotion goes on up to 85, 86, 87, 88, 89. What if it hits 90. Ninety is all you have available. All ninety is totally used up by emotion. That leaves you nothing that YOU can use as YOU want to. You mind has been hijacked by emotion.
Now you are in level 7. Level 7 is called “flooding”. This is where all 90 units which you had available - since ten units is reserved for maintaining orientation in PPT - are used up.
This is panic.
Now Als doesn’t break level 7 down into different kinds of flooding, but I’m going to do that. There are four levels of flooding, four levels of panic. Level 7-A, 7-B, 7-C, and 7-D.
Let’s call this level of panic, where 90 units are available and 90 units are taken over by emotion, level 7-A. You can’t control your mind. You may worry that you have lost it, and you may worry if it will ever come back. You may worry, since you can’t control your mind, that you may not be able to control your behavior; you may worry that you might do something stupid, embarrassing, like on an airplane, running up and down the aisle shouting let me off this thing.
Why might you do that? To get away from what is pushing you emotionally into level 7-A.
But what if the amount of emotion gets even greater? What if it goes to, say 92, . . . 93? Well, you needed ten units to maintain orientation in Person, Place, and Time. So, somethings got to give. You can’t do all three. What’s the first thing to go? Your sense of where you are? You get feeling disoriented as to where you are. You may feel like you are not in your body. Or you may feel like things are not real, or that things are sur-real. That’s a level 7-B panic attack.
Then what if the emotion gets bigger, and goes to 96, 97? Then, TIME disappears. So, here you are. Your mind of fried. You can’t think. You feel lost, and now - time disappears and this experience is “forever”.
That is a really heavy duty panic attack.
But it can get worse. When you go on up to 99 units filled with emotion, and then 100 units, your sense of who you are disappears. YOU disappear. This is, psychologically speaking, death. When you sense of identity, when you concept of YOU, vanishes, and then you come back and your identity returns, you are profoundly shocked; you realize you sort of died, or at least had a near-death experience, and the airplane caused it. You swear you will never get on an airplane again. Why? Because you just KNOW if you do, you will die.
That is because you had a level 7-D, psychological death on the airplane, and there is nothing stupidier than doing it again. It is as if you ego is saying to you, oh, you want to go fly. Well, if you really want to kill yourself, why bother buying a ticket, just go jump off a cliff. See, your ego . . . which IS your identity . . . knows IT died in that level 7D panic attack. So it figures if you fly again, it will die again; maybe permanently this next time. So, since the ego thinks it is the whole ball game, it thinks if IT dies, nothing else continues.
But your body does. If you ego - momentarily dies in a 7-D panic attack - it comes back. You body did not die; just you ego. But your ego doesn’t understand that. If figures if it died, everything died. So, if you just off a cliff, you kill your body and your mind. If you fly, if you have a momentary level 7D panic attack, you lose your sense of self momentarily, but it comes back.
Now, it is important to know, you always come back. Why? In the room where you are, there is probably a light switch. If you flip the switch and turn on the lights, a piece of metal connects the two wires going through that switch. And as long as the switch stays in that position, the connection remains.
In the mind, though, connections are made - not with metal - but with chemicals. The connections made by chemicals last only a few seconds. So, when you go to a level 7 experience, some huge number of connections are made in the mind . . . by chemicals. You go into a state of panic. BUT you can’t stay there, BECAUSE the chemicals wear off in eight to ten seconds.
You LEAVE level 7. And you go to level six. You leave panic, and you go to high anxiety. BUT, the conditions that pushed you from level 6 into level 7 may still be there, and may push you back again. That’s why panic comes in waves. You go into 7 and you are there a few seconds, and you come down to six. Since the difference between high anxiety and panic is not that great, you COULD think you are in panic for hours and hours though you are, in fact, going from six to seven to six to seven to six.
Maybe that doesn’t seem to make much different, but I think it is important to know that you can’t panic for hours. The chemical connections in the brain can’t do that.
So far we are talking about negative emotions in level seven. But it is also possible to have a positive experience of flooding. That’s what orgasm is. And there are different levels there, too. In level 7-A, 90 units of mental capacity are filled with pleasure. That’s nice. But in a level 7-B orgasm, you lose awareness of where you are. In level 7-C time disappears, and you move into a state of eternal pleasure . . . at least while it is going on, it is timeless. And then level 7-D, is the ultimate sexual ecstacy as you sense of identity disappears and you feel one with your lover and with all the world. All is one.
That’s level seven positive. So flooding is terrible if negative, but wonderful if positive. Positive, or negative? Als calls it the “valence” of the experience. I’m going to teach you next an exercise to change valence of flying thoughts; that can - obviously - make a huge difference in how flying feels.
But while we are at it, let’s talk about level 7 experiences that are neither positive, nor negative, but . . . neutral. This sort of thing happens in sports. Some people call it being in the zone. In automobile racing, it is called driving 11/10ths.
Let’s say you have a curve which you can go around at 100 miles per hour. If you go around it at 90, as you would in a long race where your concentration can’t stay peaked that long, that is called driving 9/10ths. In a short race, you go around it at 100. That’s driving 10/10ths. When you go around a hundred mile per hour curve at 110, that’s called driving 11/10ths. How is that possible? When, under the stress of competition, there is a demand for extra performance, it is sometimes possible to take that 10 units of mental capacity reserved for maintaining orientation in Person, Place and Time, and use it to drive the car.
In this extraordinary state of mind, not just 90 units, but all 100 units are available to help you drive, and the curve which is a 100 mile per hour curve in your ORDINARY state of mind, IS a 110 mile per hour curve in this extraordinary state of mind.
When that happens, you and the car and the track and the world are all just one, and the car is just being driven . . . you don’t know by who. Why? Because your sense of identity is gone; the mental capacity that ordinarily is used to maintain your sense of who you are is being used to drive the 100 mile per hour curve at 110.
Magic Johnson once made a shot that was - by every judgement - impossible. He then turned to the camera and gave a gesture that said, “I don’t know who did that”. The shot was only possible in that extraordinary state of mind, called “the zone”. It is a form of flooding. The sport is taking over, not just 90 units of mental capacity, but the ten units normally reserved for PPT as well.
What is this all about? Don’t fear flooding. Flooding is natural at times, and desirable at times, and - in sports - spectacular at times.
Positive, negative, or neutral, it is temporary. You always come back.
When you were a kid, and were flooded, somehow you missed out of being thoroughly made to know, it’s OK. You feel like it is the end of the world right now, but you ARE going to feel better. You are going to be OK.
Now. We have another thing to learn having to do with the seven levels of arousal. Als tells us that some people have a very small level six area. This means, when they leave level five (alert processing, no emotion in the way) and go to level six, they are pretty much guaranteed to go up to seven, to panic. Why? Because their level six just has so little room in it.
Why? Let’s go back to the me versus not-me domains. Just as it takes mental capacity to maintain orientation in PPT, it takes mental capacity to maintain the two domains, and to keep the non-me domain out of the mental picture. To keep all that non-me stuff dammed up. How much mental capacity does it take. Well, if you had no need to maintain the two domains, you would have 90 units available to you in level 5. But when you have to promote the “me domain” and struggle to keep the “not-me domain” disowned, you may use 10 units, or 20, or 30, or 40, or even more.
See, therapists know that the maintenance of the me-versus-not-me domains take a LOT of mental energy, and one of the jobs we do in therapy is to try to remove some of the stuff stored in the not-me domain, and bring it in TO the me domain. Why? So the pressure on the dam holding that not-me stuff back doesn’t break.
What this means is, in level five, though you have only ten units reserved to maintain PPT, you have another amount of units on standby to maintain me-versus-not me. When you have your act together, and no one is challenging it, and nothing is stressful, you have 90 units of mental capacity to work with in level five. But if something or someone presents a challenge to your act, something that threatens to expose something you have disowned and keep in the not-me domain, as belonging to you, then there is an ego challenge. Can you maintain your me versus not-me status quo.
How much disowned stuff is damed up in the not-me domain? How powerful is the challenge? If you have a lot of disowned stuff dammed up in the not-me domain and the challenge is powerful, it may take a lot of mental capacity to defend your me-versus-not-me status quo. So, lets say - when under challenge - it can take as many as thirty units to keep your act together.
Because of this challenge to you, the 90 units you ordinarily have at your disposal, thirty are taken over by this challenge to your ego. But what if you have more stuff in your not-me domain? Maybe it takes 70, 80, or even 90 units to maintain your me versus not me act. Do you get the picture? Even in level five where there is no emotion, if your me versus not me domain status quo is challenged, instead of just ten units reserve for PPT, you have 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, or more units reserved, ten for PPT and the rest to maintain the me-versus-not-me domain status quo.
Let’s say there is a major challenge to your ego, to your keeping your act together, to keeping your me-versus-not-me domain status quo, and you have 70 units tied up. You are still in level five.
But what if, while 70 units are tied up, you get hit with an emotion. When the emotion takes you into level six, instead of having 90 units to absorb the emotion, you have only thirty.
That is how our level six can seem to have a lower capacity. It’s not really that level six is smaller for some individuals; it is just that so much of level six is occupied when the emotion arrives. Actually, level five is occupied, too, but it may not be so obvious. If the speed of our work is slowed down in level five, that may not be obvious, but if an emotion hits and we panic, that’s obvious.
One last thing before we finish with Als’s seven levels of arousal.
During every waking moment, something is being recorded into memory. When something is put into memory, the memory includes data provided by PPT. When you are in level 7 B, 7 C, where some or all of PPT is inoperative, what happens to memory? Those memories which take place DURING the higher level seven experiences are different. They get recorded without location, without time, and guess what . . . even a sense of YOU as the experiencer.
Now, when you remember something that happened in level five, you remember that YOU experienced this. You have a sense of you as THE experiencer. This is called, “autonoetic” sense. Autonoetic sense is a sense of yourself, And autonoetic sense as part of a memory, PROVES to you that this is a memory.
If you are completely overwhelmed, what goes into memory during that time of overwhelmed does NOT get recorded with an autonoetic component. Then, if THAT experience happens to come to mind at some later time, when it comes to mind, it does NOT seem to be memory. It seems, therefore - lacking the autonoetic element - to be happening for the first time right here and right now.
But it isn’t. What the hell is going on? This is called, a “flashback”. Flashbacks are memories recorded during overwhelm. And when they “replay” they replay as if it is not a memory. Flashbacks are very intrusive. And since they are memories of what happened during overwhelm, when a flashback happens, and spills into the present, it spills into the present the overwhelming thing that happened . . . but not as a memory . . . but as present experience. That’s PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD, in my opinion, develops due to what is recorded into memory, while having a level 7-D negative experience. If you are having flashbacks, specialized treatment may be needed. Contact me by phone or by email.
One more thing: again: mindfulness. Since you now see what a huge problem the me-versus-not-me domain can be in setting you up for panic, and then for reducing the mental capacity available in level six to deal with emotion, mindfulness is THE tool by which a person can move things stored in the not me domain to where they belong, in the me domain.4c87