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Wise Online- Week 5
The Window of Tolerance
The Window of Tolerance charts the relationship between stress/ anxiety (hyperarousal, hypervigilance) and hypoarousal (low motivation, depression, trauma, burnout, dissociation etc). We ideally want to be in the yellow zone- the ‘creative calm’ zone. When we are in this stage we feel calm, we have a lot of energy, we are not tired, we feel like exercising, we are not sick and we don’t have unexplained/uncontrolled emotion.
It is a place where things feel right. We are calm, but not tired. Alert but not anxious.
The practices in this course are designed to help you recognise when you are outside your Window of Tolerance and help you return to the yellow zone quicker. When practiced regularly, mindfulness will help to expand your Window of Tolerance, so you are less likely to spend time dysregulated.
The Second Arrow of Suffering- How Our Mind Escalates Our Distress
There is a famous tale about dealing with suffering more skilfully.
“In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. Suffering is what our mind does when it makes hay with our pain. If we judge, blame, ruminate or deny the first arrow it is like being struck by a second arrow. Pain is inevitable, but suffering (the second arrow) is optional”.
Our interpretation of events plays a large role in how we experience them and we do tend to overdramatise much of what happens to us. We probably find ourselves dealing with the second arrow of suffering many times in the course of a day. The story is not about denying our initial reaction to pretend we are immune from pain. It is about having a choice in how to proceed next. Over time, having an awareness of this choice, and refraining from flinging endless second arrows at ourselves, can help liberate us from unnecessary suffering.
We have learnt in the program so far that thoughts create (and fuel) emotions and can evoke strong physical sensations in the body. In order to ensure we are not escalating our distress by overthinking, catastrophising or ruminating negatively about the first arrow, we should become very curious about our thoughts. It may help to journal them or write them down on paper. Then we can thank our mind for these thoughts and trying to assist us, but “Say hello and let them go”.
Dealing with Unpleasant Sensations More Skilfully
We normally react to pain or difficult sensations in one of two ways:
Blocking/ Avoidance: We try to block or deny the discomfort by pushing through it through force of will, by distracting ourselves, or by self-medicating with food, alcohol or drugs. As soon as you stop “pushing through” or your distraction/medication wears off, it can come back even stronger. In cases where the discomfort is a signal indicating corrective action needs to take place, missing the signal can result in injury or disease. In addition to this, self-medicating can create many problems, including complex side-effects or even addiction.
Drowning: We become overwhelmed by it, drowning in the discomfort and its associated fears, judgments and blaming (“I can’t stand this!”, “What if this continues or gets worse?”, “How could I have been so stupid?!?” etc.). This leads to a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.
Neither of the above two strategies are very effective or satisfying and a continual reliance on them usually makes things worse than they already are. There is a middle ground, a place where you are neither pushing away difficult feelings/situations, nor being consumed by them. This “middle way” involves learning to feel the sensations or emotions, but not being swept away by them.
Reacting with avoidance keeps us in reactivity, as we keep interpreting our sensations as threats.
By simply practicing acceptance and bringing a level of curiosity to our sensations, we are interrupting the production of stress hormones-which in itself can help reduce the discomfort or pain. A surprising and counter-intuitive result of staying with something in this way is that the discomfort often lessens, or sometimes can even disappear.
Anxiety is an uncomfortable, unpleasant feeling usually in the upper torso related to a sense of impending fear or doom. Sometimes it is very clear why we are experiencing anxiety or anxiousness. Other times we cannot pin-point the reason why we are feeling this way.
As well as a cognitive and behavioural component there can be many physical sensations in the body that accompany anxiety. Here is a diagram that illustrates this:
Stress & anxiety is produced by the Amygdala which is reacting to perceived threat. It is our job to let AmyG know we are okay and that we are safe- that there is no life threatening danger here. We can do this through sensory activation, welcoming the sensations onto your body, awareness of breathing (feeling the breath in the belly, or 5,5,8) and using a mantra such as “this too shall pass” or “I am safe, I am okay, “let me open to this”.
Try the following ABCD for overcoming anxiety next time it arises.
A- Acknowledge the Amygdala
Acknowledge the role of the amygdala. “Thank you AmyG, I see you. But I am safe, I am okay”.
Breathe and body. Inhale for 5, hold for 5, exhale with an open mouth for 8. Allow the belly to rise and fall. Follow the air moving into the abdomen, stay connected to the sensations of breath. Welcome the sensations onto your body.
Take the time to offer yourself self-compassion. Be kind to yourself. It is okay to feel this way. It will pass. “It is okay to not want this”. “Let me open to it”. “It is okay to not be okay.” “This too shall pass”.
Be mindful of thoughts about the anxiety itself. Watch the second arrow. You are not your anxiety. Put words to your feelings. “Name it to tame it”. “I notice anger arising, I notice fear arising”. Remember why anxiety feels the way it does.
Vagus Nerve Stimulation
Try this next time stress, anxiety or panic is present. Ground yourself by sitting on the ground or a chair if possible. Inhale deeply for a count of five, hold at the top for a count of five and then exhale deeply for a count of eight with an open mouth. Imagine you are fogging up a mirror. This will stimulate the vagus nerve to elicit the relaxation response.
WEEKLY PRACTICE TASKS
INFORMAL PRACTICE- Awareness of Second Arrows
This week, when you have a strong response of anxiety, pain, annoyance or difficulty use the A.B.C.D tool and the 5, 5, 8 breathing technique to help move through that discomfort. You may even like to ask yourself… what is my story line here? Am I still dealing with the first arrow of suffering, or have I well and truly moved into the second one?
FORMAL PRACTICE- Regulating Practices
This week there is an opportunity to practice Regulating Practices. This practice is designed to help you return to your Window of Tolerance- a place where things feel calm, easy, balanced and where things feel just right. You may also like to try Panic & Anxiety SOS if you are swept away by strong anxiety or uncomfortable sensations.