I left my window of tolerance yesterday.
One minute, I am an hour into work and just being a badass bartender.
I was on.
I was happy. I was content. I was feeling the stress of the busy and full pub, but I was doing just fine.
And then cutlery clattered.
The room slowed down.
I felt every negative vibe that was in that set moment.
And I left my window of tolerance.
Thirty seconds. Within thirty seconds, I went from operating as a fully functioning adult, to a human heaved out of their window of tolerance into pure survival response.
I told my coworkers I needed a moment.
I went downstairs.
And my body released the score.
There are many names, yet not many words.
But you know what?
I let it happen. I allowed my body to release what it needed to release.
And then, I started the work of doing what needed to be done to find my window again.
I was back upstairs in twenty minutes. That is a record for me.
But my pride is not in the time.
We have all pushed ourselves where pushing should not happen simply to be somewhere we’re expected to be.
This was not that.
I found my window within twenty minutes by breathing, sprinting, releasing, and knowing.
I am proud of myself for getting up and getting back out there.
But I am most proud of the fact that I recognized the window.
I understood when I left it,
and I knew what to do to find the window again.
Our window is a tricky minx; and mine and I have started to dance.
What is the window of tolerance?
My therapist Katie used to speak in the best metaphors. Intense psychological concepts became analogies of flowing rivers and backwards mirrors. She helped me find understanding through metaphors. So, in the way of Katie…here is my attempt at explaining the window of tolerance.
Imagine your life as a large pinball machine.
You are the pinball, and before you are born, (sometimes) caretakers attempt to set up the smoothest pinball arena possible. They carefully lay soft markers so your journey in the world hopefully feels less chaotic than theirs did.
Velocity and Life are similar entities though. Once they begin, the pinball usually just holds on and hopes to survive.
You are flying out of that coil from the moment you are born. It is in these first initial moments/years that the foundations of your pinball’s window of tolerance is built.
In a perfect world, with zero generational trauma, your pinball’s window would be a wide and happy highway, filled with easily managed obstacles. This is a world we can dream of, but it is not the one we are currently in. Eventually, something will force that baby pinball outside of the window of tolerance and into hyper or hypo-arousal.
At two years old, Susie is lost in the supermarket.
Pinball Susie looks around and realizes she is lost. Her pinball ricochets out of the space in Susie’s brain that she is able to receive, process, and integrate information into the choices she makes. Instead, she is flung into hyper or hypo-arousal, aka survival mode.
Susie runs away.
Susie stands at the end of the aisle weeping and potentially wailing.
Susie sprints out of the store and into the parking lot in fear.
Or… Susie knocks over the cereal display in a blind rage.
Pinball Susie is hyper-aroused.
Something we need to remember in this moment is that Susie has VERY LITTLE control of what actions her body is taking. Her instinctual survival response has taken over.
The next day, Susie is acting like a slug.
Her movements have slowed, she has little interest in her hobbies, and she just feels…empty.
Just like pinball machines, what goes up…eventually must come down.
After this traumatic event, Susie’s pinball falls in the other direction; again, outside of her window of tolerance into hypo-arousal, leaving her feeling depressed, fatigued, lethargic, and disconnected.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where more traumatic things happen to children than being lost in the supermarket.
When I was sexually abused at three years old, that forever changed the anatomy of my window of tolerance. When we experience adversity through trauma and unmet attachment needs, this drastically changes our nervous systems which then can significantly shrink our window of tolerance.
My caretakers did everything they could to make my pinball journey as gentle as it could be. However, trauma changed the arena within the first few years.
I have spent years outside of my window of tolerance as many others have. A traumatic event flung me into hyper-arousal. I learned to be hyper-aware of the world around me and the dangers it held. This has kept me safe, but developed a state of chronic anxiety, panic, hyperactivity, chronic pain, digestive problems, hyper vigilance, and emotional flooding to name a few. I have lived with the ON switch flipped for 24 years now.
Others handed traumatic life events are flung into hypo-arousal.
You’ve learned to deaden and disassociate to cope with the dangers behind you and around you. Maybe you’ve developed depression or feel lethargic ALL the time. Chronic fatigue, disconnection, dissociation, low blood pressure, brain disconnecting, and overall deadness; you have soldiered through this world with the OFF switch flipped.
First of all, I am so proud of us for even getting as far as we have. Our bodies DID WHAT THEY COULD TO SURVIVE. And that is freaking cool. Your body, your mind, and your spirit did what they HAD TO DO to help you stay alive. Sit for a moment and be proud of all the things that have gotten you this far.
The beautiful news is that even if life has shrunk our window of tolerance to the width of a Slim Jim...
WE HAVE ALL THE TOOLS WE NEED WITHIN US TO HEAL THIS DAMN SLIM JIM.
I left my window of tolerance yesterday. It didn’t take much to fling me outside of it. My body went into a state of hyper-arousal which can and often does lead to a flashback.
But I didn’t fight it.
When you are flung from your window of tolerance, YOU can help your body know it is safe.
If you find yourself flung into hyper-arousal, these are the things that have helped me find my way back to the window:
Deep and slow breathing. (I use the Calm app…it slaps)
Drinking from a straw
Sprint. I’m serious. Find a long space or a big enough circle and sprint for 15 seconds. This helps your body RELEASE the survival mode energy it has coursing through it.
Shake your body. Put on Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off if you feel weird. Shaking releases energy which releases trauma.
Walking. Go on the stupid walk for your stupid mental health.
Music that gives you peace.
Comfort food that made you happy as a kid.
They are such tiny things. But they help me remind my body she isn’t in danger. They help me find the window.
If your body is flung into hypo-arousal, things that stimulate the senses are what bring er’ back:
Chewy or crunchy food
Blowing into a straw
Dancing to music
These are actions that help the body wake up and know it is safe once more.
I left the window yesterday. I’ll probably leave it again.
But this pinball still wants all the beauty that this life can give.
I am at home in my body.
I am at home in my mind.
And I am becoming teammates with my window.
I hope your window is as wide as the ocean dear friend.
If it is not, know you are not alone,
and know there is healing to be had.
Until next time.