Here’s the scenario:
You are moving across country. Driving from Los Angeles, CA to Sarasota, FL. Everything you own is in your car. EVERYTHING. You need to make it to Sarasota FAST. You start a new job in less than a week. You’ve given yourself 3 days driving — at most! — and 2 days to settle into your new place before the job starts.
You are alone. Except for your cherished pet, Kitty.
(Maybe you have a dog.)
Luck is not on your side. You are passing through Louisiana one day after a major hurricane. Highway Patrol puts you on a detour through the state’s back roads. You literally spot tornadoes funneling across flat stretches of land. You drive on roads where the water covers your wheels. You pass raccoons, deer, and possums, their eyes glowing that blank, in-the-headlights stare. You think of them as kindred spirits, mirroring the hollow feeling in your frightened soul.
It’s now evening and still storming.
You decide enough of the crazy push to cross the entire country in less than 3 days. You stop in a roadside motel. (Think Bates Motel, or something out of a David Lynch movie. Not the Ritz Carlton.) Tired, you leave your things in the car, although you don’t feel safe about the decision. But you take Kitty into the room with you.
A bit spooked, Kitty curls up in a corner trying to make herself small. You climb into the lonely bed and try to fall asleep, but startle when you hear something rustling in the opposite corner from Kitty. You turn on the lights, and OMG! THERE’S A POISONOUS SNAKE!!!
What do you do?
- Look around for something to use to kill the snake?
- Crunching your legs up, you push your body hard against the headboard, and scream uncontrollably?
- Even though your heart’s racing, you pick up the phone and in a relatively calm voice let the front desk know you need, um, some assistance, please, and start whispering about the snake?
- Bolt out of the room and hope Kitty follows you out the open door?
- Grab Kitty then bolt out the room?
- Grab your phone and take a photo of the snake, maybe even a selfie, before running out the door, calling Here, kitty, kitty once you’re far, far away?
- Just sit there. Frozen.
How you imagine dealing with this scenario might tell you something about yourself, and your ‘go-to’ defenses during times of stress. Are you someone who usually tries to fight her/his way out of problems? When you get scared, do you avoid relying on others? Blinded by your fear, do you forget there is anyone or anything else? Do you rely too much on others to get you out of jams? Do you get caught in minutia, distractions, or denial? Or do you just freeze up?
Sometimes when fear or stress is intense, the problem isn’t so much the overwhelmingly scary or stressful thing happening in our lives, but how we deal (or don’t deal) with it.
Maybe you learned you had to fight your way out of every bad situation on your own, and now you need to learn how to rely more on others for help. Or maybe you’ve come to see yourself as weak, and you need to break out of ‘victim’ mentality. Perhaps you caretake others so much you don’t even know your own needs, let alone how to address them. Or maybe you are so emotionally cut off from feeling fear, you treat life-threatening danger like it’s a Disney ride.
Ideally, we have access to all possible defense reactions — fight, flight, freeze, submit, attach. And the right one is the one that most adaptively fits the situation we find ourselves in. But in reality, the defenses we use are largely determined by past traumatic or potentially traumatic situations, along with our temperaments and our efforts to adapt to family, cultural, and ecological conditions. Such conditioning naturally influences how we adapt to present moment experiences.
For example, people who have had to endure histories of chronic abuse often submit when fighting or fleeing would be a better option. They ‘over learn’ submission as a defense, and tend to lack a robust fight response, or at least one that would increase survival when they are no longer subjected to what Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery categorized as conditions of captivity, such as childhood abuse or domestic violence.
In contrast, someone whose body has become organized around fight, and has had to react quickly and aggressively in order to survive, such as conditions of combat or bullying, can have more difficulty reaching out for help, or running from a threat, when these responses would lead to a better outcome.
I doubt many people take time to contemplate their go-to defenses, unless they cause a lot of trouble, but I think it’s a wise thing to do. Best laid plans — not to mention perfectly good relationships — can be destroyed by a lack of awareness of the defenses that get activated in times of threat or intense stress. Not only because of the lack of fit between our habitual defenses and what would be most adaptive to each unique situation, but also because of the fallout that often follows. Because, along with go-to defenses usually comes a costly recovery period. For example, going back to the snake-in-the-motel scenario…
After the snake problem is resolved, what would you do?
- Go back to bed, thinking What’s the chance of another snake showing up?
- Go back on the road, perhaps in search of a Ritz Carlton?
- Suffer insomnia as your mind obsessively and uncontrollably continues to envision the snake?
- Gorge on the $30 worth of vending machine snacks you just bought in the lobby?
- Buy a 6-pack (or 12-pack) from the Seven Eleven down the road and drink yourself numb while watching infomercials with the TV on mute, your ears piqued for the sound of snake?
- Call someone who can give you support and help calm your nerves?
- Call someone who you wished could give you support, but never has and likely never will? And then maybe pick a fight, discharging all that pent-up fear, but blaming your outburst on her/his chronic insensitivity?
- Surf web until light breaks, then sleep until noon, screwing up your plans for driving the next day?
- Acknowledge your state of distress and use meditation or physical activity to discharge the tension from your body? (Yeah, right.)
Assuming the snake has been removed and the motel now safe, the best options are #1, completely let the crisis go (You’re a Yogi! — or in total denial), or #6, seek truly supportive help that you are emotionally prepared to receive, or #9, acknowledge your body is in need of TLC. These responses are most likely if you are some advanced emotional being, or are on your way there.
Most of us will regress to our own personal ‘lesser’ selves, that shell beneath the shell of basic functioning. Supposedly these are the times when we discover our character. In actuality, though, we’re just being our scared as shit selves. And it’s okay to be scared or stressed, except for the impact chronic stress and fear have on the body (including contributing to the onset of things like dementia, diabetes, fibromyalgia, etc.) and the reverberating impact that intense fear (including its dissociation or complete denial) can have on relationships when we act like selfish jerks — you know, like when you act like you’re the only person who ever woke up to a cottonmouth in the corner of a motel room. Please!
A lot of the time we need to get over ourselves, albeit with compassion, kindness, and nonjudgmental self-awareness. (Most of us really need to stress that nonjudgmental part!)
And the quicker the better.
Disasters, chaos, and uncertainty are the norm, while compassion and emotional calm, like stable weather, are in short supply. We can’t help but get scared and stressed these days —and frequently — but we can help ourselves, each other, and the planet when we learn how to bring ourselves quickly back to our higher selves, and with minimal damage to our well-being or anyone else’s.
Learning the practice of continually returning to the window of tolerance
If there is one thing I would want to teach every person on the planet, it’s about the Window of Tolerance and getting back into it. Because if we all knew about the Window of Tolerance, and treated it as the smaller, yet noble star we must always find before reaching our North Star (that truest, enlightened version of ourselves), then, oh what a happy planet of beings we would be!
I’ve written about the Window of Tolerance elsewhere, but honestly, I can’t believe I haven’t written about it more, seeing as it has become the wind in my sails, the honey to my inner bee, the Toto to my darling Dorothy Self (you get the point). Seriously. I don’t even know how to live without it these days. Every disturbance to my inner chill has me resourcing myself back to my Window of Tolerance. And as a result, people actually comment on my peaceful presence, and I feel more grounded too. It’s one of the basics of trauma work, but I think it’s been ghettoized a bit by this association. It’s really something we all should learn, since we all are continually adapting to conditions that cause stress and fear.
So here’s what you need to know about WOT (the acronym for Window of Tolerance) and how to get back there:
- From what I have been able to find out, the Window of Tolerance was first introduced by Dr. Dan Siegel, who in his book The Developing Mind stressed the importance of emotional regulation for mental health.
- The best way to think about the WOT is as an emotional, physical, and social state we can inhabit where we feel capable, and able to attend to the task at hand, along with interacting meaningfully with others, while also attending to our own emotional states and needs.
- The WOT has an upper limit, hyperarousal, and a lower limit, hypoarousal. Each of these extremes have their associated emotional, physical, and social states, just as the WOT does.
- To live within the WOT requires knowing the signs that you are out of it — either hyperaroused or hypoaroused — and then knowing what to do to get yourself back within the WOT.
- Getting back in the WOT is all about resourcing. Depending on your unique self and approach to living — e.g., your temperament, your attachment style, your go-to defenses, and other habitual propensities — you resource yourself either through your body, your thoughts, your emotions, or a combination of these.
Below is a handout I made that diagrams the WOT and shares resourcing tips. It includes the primary signs that you are either in the WOT, hyperaroused, or hypoaroused. It also shares some things you can do when you find yourself outside the WOT, as well as ways to widen your habitual WOT, and thus reduce the amount of stress you experience and react to.
Print it out! Post it to your Evernote account! Socially Share it far and wide! The more of us who try to live within the Window Of Tolerance, the safer this world will feel and be.
Herman, Judith. (1997). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: BasicBooks.
Ogden, Pat, Minton, Kekuni, & Pain, Clare. (2006). Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Siegel, Dan. (2015). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. Second Ed. The Guilford Press.
© 2015 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).