Bringing the Calm to the Storm

If anxiety, anger and chaos rule the day where in the world can we turn to find a semblance of calm, an island of safety, instead of being swept out to sea?  Being grounded, calm, present, open and curious in today’s climate feels out of reach, allusive, and at best perhaps wishful thinking.  Our attention is pulled in so many directions as we track everything that threatens to turn our lives upside down.  It feels imperative to watch for the latest regarding COVID-19 cases, CDC recommendations, school board decisions, and protests.

The Window of Tolerance, a term introduced by Dr. Dan Siegal, provides a template for understanding our body’s physiological response to stress.  The goal is to stay within our window of tolerance – in this zone we feel balanced, connected, grounded, responsive (vs reactive), we reflect, think clearly, and make decisions calmly while also experiencing our emotions.  Here you are coping well with the ups and downs of life.

During times of extreme stress, we often get pushed above or below the window of tolerance.  When we are pushed above the window of tolerance, we enter the physiological state of hyper-arousal (fight/flight).  This state is often characterized by hypervigilance, feelings of anxiety, anger, panic, racing thoughts and/or impulsive behavior.  When we are pushed below the window of tolerance, we enter the physiological state of hypo-arousal (freeze).  This state often causes feelings of numbness, emptiness, being on autopilot, paralysis and dissociation. 

The goal is to stay within the window of tolerance to better navigate the storms of life.  Practice the following to expand your window:
1) Be mindful.  Mindfulness is the ability to be in the here and now – neither predicting the future nor ruminating on the past.  It allows us to step out of autopilot so we can be more purposeful in our day-to-day choices.  Mindfulness teaches us to notice our direct experiences (body sensations, emotions, thoughts) whether they are pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.  Bring your full attention to the task at hand whether you are working, reading, walking, doing the dishes, or being with another person. 
2) Get grounded.  Grounding exercises are another tool to pull you into the present by focusing on sensory perceptions.  Name 5 things you see (include details of the objects), notice what you hear, smell.  Touch something in the room, feel the weight of yourself sitting in a chair, feel your feet planted on the ground.   Chew a piece of gum and focus on its flavor and texture.   
3) Breath slowly and deeply.  The exhalation should be longer than the inhalation (inhale to a count of 4 and exhale to a count of 6).  The exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps calm and soothe. 
4) Take a walk.  Our body needs to know it can move – that we are not stuck and shutdown.  Moving your body sends the message to your brain that you are not helpless, and this can shift us out of feeling overwhelmed. 
5) Reach out to another person.  We are social creatures.  Operating within our window of tolerance best equips us to manage and thrive in everyday life.  While we cannot prevent the storms from happening, we can become expert navigators.

Written by: Carrie Brown LPC For Elliant Counseling Services

Follow-up blog:  How Trauma Impacts the Window of Tolerance