By Jennifer Baker, LPC RPT ACS
“If you want to improve the world, start by making people feel safe.”
— Dr. Stephen Porges, Father of Polyvagal Theory
I had been invited to write an article for you and, to be honest, I just didn’t have the time. Running at full speed on my hamster wheel, I was exhausted both mentally and physically from my workload, family life, and just daily living.
Sound familiar? Especially after Covid, my entire world just changed, I changed. So, it seems, did everyone else.
But after making time for some self-care, here I am. Putting myself at the top of my own list doesn’t mean I am any less busy, it just means that I put the oxygen mask on first so that I can continue to help others. Thank you, American Airlines!
I am always searching for ways to help both my clients and myself get back into our bodies, be more focused and organized, find more joy, say more “no’s”, have more patience, and feel more connected and safer in this world which we now live. I am hoping you find this article relevant and helpful, so I will keep it short and sweet. First, a little background/introduction about trauma, why the Window of Tolerance is so important, then a skill or two for you to help regulate your nervous system.
I’m sure you’ve certainly noticed and wondered why everyone is acting so stressed, crazy, angry, inappropriate, aggressive, ________________ (enter your word here) after we staggered away from a global pandemic a few years ago. Sometimes, in order to understand how we move through our present life, it’s helpful to revisit the why and the how of big events from the past and how they may shape everyone’s ability to handle and process things. It is of utmost importance to understand the adaptive patterns of our brain and nervous system in order to fully understand ourselves, our emotions, how we heal, and the process of digesting and moving through trauma.
In other words, we have to look at how our past has shaped us in order to understand our present thoughts and behaviors. Some of the things we experienced in the past during Covid changed us; when we thought that everything was going to be okay and it wasn’t, and that being near other people would kill us or our family. We may have believed life was more than we could handle; we were trapped and didn’t have choices; feared we could not help ourselves, or our family if they became sick.
The big deal here is not that these bad things happened to us, but that a repair and return to calm/safety, through a connection with a trusted person that could help us move through and resolve the situation, was not available to us, then or now, for whatever reason.
In simple terms, if your proverbial personal basket is full of “stuff” (trauma, heartbreak, Covid, stress, childhood trauma, betrayal, grief, etc.) and you are not able to connect with someone else to regulate your nervous system and empty that basket, you may feel that:
- Your body is tired and you feel overwhelmed often.
- You are disconnected from others and feel a little hopeless.
- You have a hair trigger and are very reactive.
- You make decisions from a place of fear instead of curiosity.
- You have brain fog, feel disorganized, and unmotivated.
- You can’t stop thinking about IT, like a constant movie on replay in your mind.
Again, the lynchpin to present emotional regulation, growing our Window of Tolerance (see below) and a ‘felt sense’ of safety is: Return to calm/safety through connection with a trusted person that IS going to help us move through and help us find some sort of resolution to our problem.
What exactly is the Window of Tolerance? According to Unity Health, Toronto’s Mindfulness Awareness Stabilization Training (MAST) program:
- The “Window of Tolerance” (Ogden, et al. (2006); Siegel, 1999) is the optimal zone of arousal where we are able to manage and thrive in everyday life. This can be thought of as sailing within a river of well-being (Siegel & Bryson, 2012) where we are able to respond to all that comes our way without getting thrown off course. When we are outside of our window of tolerance, our nervous system responds by going into survival mode – fight, flight, or freeze. We can either feel overwhelmed and go into hyper-arousal (fight/flight/fawn) or we can shut down and go into hypo-arousal (disconnection, depression, overwhelm). Our window of tolerance can be narrow or wide and is different for all people and at different times in our lives.
Now that we know how negative past experiences can shrink our Window of Tolerance and affect our ability to be emotionally regulated in the present, what do we do about it? How do we get our impulsive, explosive, ruminating, emotional brain to stop running the show?
We can use different therapeutic and/or somatic self-regulation skills to expand our Window of Tolerance.
After using the skills listed below, you can possibly:
- Feel more present and engaged in your everyday life, rather than being a prisoner of the negative experiences of the past or worries of the future.
- Find yourself having more patience for others, not getting sucked into chaotic situations and big feelings.
- Verbalize your boundaries and limits in a way that lands kindly on others, and they can receive them.
- Pilot your life from a place of compassion for others and yourself, evidenced in your thoughts and actions.
If we consistently retrain our nervous system to become calm, we may create an opportunity for attachment repair and co-regulation with other people that could allow us to integrate our lives in a new way. That ‘emotional learning experience’ could potentially digest the unprocessed trauma or ‘stuck’ memories and we can leave them in the past where they belong. That leaves the present wide open for better decisions, more joy, and deeper connection with others.
Now, some skills. You may say these seem too simple to be effective but the research doesn’t lie. Commit to some time on the daily and you may feel the magic happen. I, myself, am a doubter. I also now meditate because it has made such a difference for me. But don’t believe me, there’s a great Youtube video where Jerry Seinfeld and Howard Stern talk about how they have meditated their whole lives. Oh yeah, David Lynch too.
Meditation. (Even just five minutes)
I know you have heard this before, but the proof is in the pudding (and the research). Using the prefrontal cortex actually thickens the grey matter in this area thus increasing planning, problem solving, and controlling your emotions.
This is why TM (transcendental meditation) is so darn helpful! Read more here at www.bupa.co.uk.
Or you can spend a few minutes/breaths anytime, but especially in the morning, doing this:
Meditation for regulation:
Breathe in and say to yourself, “Yes”.
Breathe out and say, “Thank you”.
You’re welcome! In my experience, everyone who I have shared these techniques with, from children to adults, have reported it’s a life changing practice. More calm, more of the time. ‘Nuff said.
What fires together, wires together!
Do something active with someone else to let your body know it’s ok to feel the energy of mobilization and that it is not a threat. Growing your ability to be active and also be near other people, who may have been a source of feeling unsafe, is the best way to become more yourself more of the time and expand your Window of Tolerance.
Doing yoga, walking together, cooking together, especially playing together which brings and creates more access to Joy……it’s all great for attachment and safety.
Voooooo & hand washing.
This sound is like doing push ups for your nervous system.
Get that nervous system regulated! In Dr. Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing, getting the nervous system unstuck from whatever state it’s in is the way to emotional regulation, more often.
Note: If you are upset or stuck in an emotion for longer than you’d like, doing a Vooooo can almost instantly help pop you through to being calm.
The method of chaining new behaviors with old or established habits and associations (practicing them together) works better than trying to make new habits.
As you wash your hands, take a breath in and then exhale a nice long and low Vooooo sound, do it multiple times per day, even when you feel good! Plus, doing it alone in the bathroom feels less weird, just sayin.
Double breath in, then sigh loudly.
If you are feeling anxious, this releases excess carbon dioxide for an instant feeling of relief. Thank you, Dr. Huberman. He speaks of a few more breathing techniques in the following link to his video on breathwork.
Breathe, heart rate, mind, in that order.
In closing, I hope you have enjoyed reading this article as much as I did writing it for you. There’s an invitation for you to ask me a question, or even write about a topic you feel would serve this community. I also have a great website with a variety of videos and articles that may help in understanding your nervous system, brain/body connection, or just wanting to be your best Self.
Here’s where you can check it out: www.changeforyourlife.com
Feel free to email me and ask me a question: Jennifer@changeforyourlife.com
Jennifer has been working with children, adolescents, and families in a variety of settings such as schools, private practice, and community agencies for over a decade. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), a Registered Play Therapist (RPT), an Approved Clinical Supervisor (ACS), EMDR Certified and a Consultant in Training for EMDR.
She uses EMDR 1 & 2.0, Somatic Experiencing, Polyvagal Theory, the Safe & Sound Protocol, Flash Technique, Ego States, Play Therapy, Trauma-Informed Yoga, and other creative therapies in her mental health private practice.
She has taught both undergraduate and graduate classes at Monmouth University and NJCU, respectively. She writes a biweekly newsletter and would like to continue to provide training, support, and a sense of community for other therapists in the field so we can all grow towards providing inclusive ‘best practices’ for all communities.
She has served as a Board Member for: NJAPT (New Jersey Association of Play Therapy); Friends of MCCAC (Monmouth Child Advocacy Center); Play Therapy Consortium of New Jersey and served as President of NJACC 2022-2023.