My grandma passed away a couple weeks ago, which is why things have been quieter than usual around here. This is the first person who I’ve had die who I had a strong relationship with and I had enough time with, both as a child and an adult, to deeply love. I’ve noticed it’s affected me differently than other people who’ve passed away.
So I’ve been emotionally overwhelmed and had to prioritize where I put my attention for a bit, since (while I love the blog and appreciate you readers so much) my faith, my family and my clients take priority over any posting schedule these days.
When I get emotionally overwhelmed, there are still times I can’t identify what I’m feeling, but I notice I’ll start doing things that I don’t do anymore that signal I’m suffering in someway. For instance, I noticed I started biting my nails, which is something I don’t typically do anymore. I noticed I was at a pool with my mom and had cyclical, negative thoughts about my body, which if I’m blaming my body for my discomfort that’s a sign something is up. Also, my best friend (who I’ve known since I was one year old) texted saying she was coming into town for a week and I immediately started crying, while I’m always happy to see her I typically don’t burst into tears when I know she’s coming. Those three things and a couple other things I did made me think, “hmm. I wonder why I just did that?” So even when I think I’m doing okay or I know I’m not okay but can’t describe my feelings other than “meh, I don’t feel good”, my body still perks up with little signs it’s in pain and needs care in some way.
Recently I was listening to a podcast for work and they discussed the window of tolerance, so I looked it up since it sounded relevant to life in general, since life can be hard. I found it interesting and wanted to share with you. If you’re a therapist or have been in therapy for a while, maybe you’ve heard of it?
Here’s the gist of it as this article put it + a couple images for my more visual learners…
“When a person is within their window of tolerance, it is generally the case that the brain is functioning well and can effectively process stimuli. That person is likely to be able to reflect, think rationally, and make decisions calmly without feeling either overwhelmed or withdrawn.
However, during times of extreme stress people often experience periods of either hyper- or hypo-arousal.
- Hyper-arousal, otherwise known as the “fight/flight” response, is often characterized by hypervigilance, feelings of anxiety and/or panic, and racing thoughts.
- Hypo-arousal, or a freeze response, may cause feelings of emotional numbness, emptiness, or paralysis.
We may experience hurt, anxiety, pain, anger that brings us close to the edges of the window of tolerance but generally we are able to utilize strategies to keep us within this window. Adverse experiences also shrink our window of tolerance meaning we have less capacity to ebb and flow and a greater tendency to become overwhelmed more quickly.”
So this got me thinking how the window of tolerance could be applied to eating disorders and looking into this I ended up putting language and understanding to some of my past experience in the eating disorder that I didn’t have language for prior to learning about this. This is what I learned.
Gill said, “People often attempt to self-regulate and bring themselves into an optimal/calm arousal level any way that they can, without even knowing this is what they are trying to do.” So I interpreted this as: the function of one’s eating disorder could be an attempt (conscious or subconscious) to bring one back within their window of tolerance and minimize the distress they are feeling. But does engaging in an eating disorder behavior effectively return one to their window of tolerance in a healthy and safe way?
In the aforementioned article, Gill states, “understanding the function of how people are responding and what may be needed to effectively shift this emotional state is critical for finding effective strategies to shift arousal that don’t lead to further harm to self or others or leave the individual with a sense of shame. This can be referred to as a false refuge in that it provides the “illusion” that it is helping but in the end the problem is still there and maybe even bigger and now we have layered on shame, guilt, a sense of failure etc., as we have responded in a way that we didn’t want to. A “true refuge” is something we do for ourselves that effectively allows us to shift towards our optimal arousal zone while building competencies and taking care of ourselves in a manner that feels good.”
The best thing for me when in a hyper-arousal state (since recovering from the eating disorder and practicing and getting wrong and testing what works and what doesn’t work for months/years/I’m sure this will be a practice for the rest of my life and will constantly be shifting) has been laying on my yoga mat in my backyard, typically crying. It was trial and error for me to find what worked, but when I’m maxed out and in that hyper-arousal state, laying outside doing nothing helps. This same behaviors worked really well for me when I was letting go of my unhealthy and unhelpful attachment to exercise and still serves me well when I feel or begin to feel dysregulated and am in that place of I.just.can’t.even. For a long time I thought exercise was healthy for regulating my emotions, but since I tend to gravitate towards a hyper-arousal state when overwhelmed what I have come to realize (this was the light bulb moment for me), is that I don’t need to move faster than my thoughts (what intense cardio accomplished for me) when overwhelmed because when hyper-aroused you need stillness and grounding…not more energy/arousal. I need to be down regulated in those moments, not stimulated. After looking into all this I was like, “oh, that’s a very clear reason exercise wasn’t useful for me when in a place of intense overwhelm”, which if you need an eating disorder to cope with life, everyday likely feels like a place of intense overwhelm. If you gravitate towards a hypo-arousal state when overwhelmed, perhaps exercise would be helpful for you in those moments.
In the article, Gill goes on to say, “Adults should be encouraged to focus mindfully on noticing how they feel, how their body feels, and identifying what they need to feel right again. The key is figuring out what works and when. At times some activities may be down regulating / grounding while at times the same activity may be stimulating. Try different things and find what works well for you. Practice strategies when you are calm and on a regular basis, this will build your capacity to access these when you start to become overwhelmed.”
If you found this as interesting as I did, you may want to click over and read the entire article, where Gill includes activity suggestions that decrease or increase arousal if you are outside of your window of tolerance and looking to get back into it.
Have you found certain behaviors that return you to your window of tolerance when you feel maxed out and chaotic inside (for those in a hyper-arousal state) or sluggish and disconnected (for those in a hypo-arousal state)?
note: I don’t know what you’ve been through. For some who have experienced trauma and didn’t have adequate holding/support during or afterwards you may have a very small window of tolerance and you need the help of a therapist, family, God, and/or friends in creating a safe space for yourself and it’s highly likely the internet and this blog is not an adequate resource to create that safe space for you.