The best results for helping us change behaviors and become more resilient is in learning how to manage our nervous systems. Learning how to notice the arousal and calming of our psychobiological systems increases one’s capacity to deal with outside stimuli. As a person’s nervous system learns to regulate the anxious/depressed cycle that many people live in starts to fade away.
The above graphic shows the Window of Tolerance.
Above the window is the chaotic feeling of anxiety. Below the window is the rigid feeling of depression. One of the main points of psychotherapy is to learn how to stay within this window to live a more satisfying life.
All day long our nervous system is monitoring our level of arousal. We go up in arousal and down in arousal throughout the day. Most of this is happening at an unconscious level. As long as we stay in our Window of Tolerance we can handle our lives really well. In their book, Affect Regulation Theory: A Clinical Model, Daniel Hill and Alan Schore explain how important it is to stay within the Window of Tolerance.
When affect is regulated, the organism is integrated and able to respond flexibly to the internal and external environments. We experience a sense of self-mastery, and indeed, when regulated we are optimally functional. When affect is dysregulated, we become dissociated (disintegrated) and reduced to automated processes and isolated portions of our memory. In other words, the organization of the self is affect state dependent. We organize and disorganize depending on whether or not we are regulated. (Hill and Schore, 2015)
What does it feel like outside our Window of Tolerance?
It is the times when we get really overwhelmed with demands and stressful stimuli that we begin to become dysregulated. For some of us we default towards the top of the window, towards anxiety and panic. For others the default is towards the bottom of the window and to shutting down. At these points we may notice the world as less accessible. We may notice fogginess in our thoughts and our sight may get blurry while other senses, like hearing and smell, fade away.
Getting out of our Window is not abnormal. We all have experienced those times when there was just too much to deal with and we panicked or shut down. Once we noticed this we were likely able to calm our nervous systems down. However, for other people, who come from difficult trauma backgrounds, being out of the Window can be their normal existence. Actually being in the Window, feeling safe, calm and engaged, can seem unfamiliar.
Counseling surrounding your Window of Tolerance
In my work with clients, one of the most important elements we track together is their arousal level and where they are in the Window. By teaching clients to notice when they are getting close to the top of the window we can develop tools to help bring them back in.
So much of affect (the level of arousal) is happening at an unconscious level. Someone may suddenly notice they are feeling panic but they have no idea why or how they got there. Often times people will look to their environment to explain why they are feeling overwhelmed. This can mean blaming those nearby for the feelings that are occurring.
I help my clients to slow things down and notice how their nervous system moves up towards chaotic feelings or down towards rigid feelings. The magic is all in the awareness. By bringing awareness to how are system regulates it starts to learn how to regulate better. This means someone can stay in the Window longer. It also means that the Window Of Tolerance is getting bigger. The client will notice this when certain stresses don’t seem to have the same impact on him/her than they used to.
You can work on your resiliency.
A more balanced nervous system is more adaptable and flexible. I help my clients learn higher levels of resiliency so they don’t checkout of their relationships either through chaotic or rigid responses. This allows my clients more behavioral options in how they want to respond to the world.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or anxiety, have them give me a call.
Everyone’s nervous system can create more resiliency.
Wishing You The Day You Need To Have!
Hill, Daniel & Schore, Alan (2015) Affect Regulation Theory: A Clinical Model (Norton Series On Interpersonal Neurobiology), New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.