Low Arousal FAQs

Arousal here refers to the state of both physiological and psychological alertness and reaction to stimuli, which causes the brain to activate the nervous and hormone systems of the body, thus increasing heart rate, blood pressure and the persons readiness to respond.

The Yerkes Dodson Law (1908) maintains that performance and arousal are linked, and proposes that high levels of arousal lead to decreases in human performance. This means that arousal plays a key role in human behaviour, and should therefore be considered by individuals whose roles involve managing challenging behaviour.

What do we mean by the term 'arousal'?

If we think about arousal and its behavioural impacts, there are a number of areas where certain behaviour may be explained by this terminology, particularly in individuals with autism.  Extreme levels of hyperarousal may lead to a person becoming less responsive to environmental stimuli and appearing to literally “shut down”.  In these instances, the internal arousal state becomes more dominant, providing a physiological explanation for the forms of catatonic-type behaviours which can be observed in some individuals.  Other forms of catatonia may be a result of low levels of physiological arousal which has a similar effect on movement.

Can arousal lead to ‘shut downs’?

How easy is it to use reflective practice?

It can be difficult to reflect, but it can also be liberating. Incidents of challenging behaviour do not occur in a “behavioural vacuum”, however generally staff fail to interpret behaviours in a way which acknowledges their involvement in the situation. In reflective practice, there is a focus on actively learning from experience. A reflective practitioner might focus on their own potential contribution to challenging situations. They would ask questions such as, “Did I trigger the situation with my actions?” or  “How can I change the situation in the future?”

People are often advised to ignore negative behaviours as they are seen as wilful and manipulative, and therefore should not be reinforced. However, the low arousal approach recognises and responds to the fact that many behaviours are not always wilful and deliberate, despite sometimes feeling like they are. When we are trying to manage situations it can begin to feel like a person is controlling us. By recognising our own role in situations of crisis, and seeking to understand the individuals we are working with, we can better manage challenging behaviours by focusing on their origins.

Are we reinforcing negative behaviours?

People often perceive the low arousal approach as ‘giving in’. In a crisis, our goal is to reduce stress and not to punish a person. The more stressed people become, the less they are able to process. In contrast to using restraint methods in a crisis, the low arousal approach teaches humanitarian methods such as removing a person from a situation in order to de-escalate the situation without causing more stress. Far from 'giving in', the low arousal approach focuses on not exacerbating stressful situations and causing challenging behaviours to become more challenging.

Is it 'giving in'?