This article aims to enable resilience in the difficult times we face today by introducing a framework, language, and tools for monitoring and improving stress-readiness. It is based on the work of Dr David Treleaven, a mindfulness researcher, practitioner and author of Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness(1.).

Firstly, please heed the following words from Dr Treleaven:

“..mindfulness meditation can exacerbate symptoms of traumatic stress..people can experience flashbacks, dysregulation, or dissociation.”

What is the Window of Tolerance?

Put simply, the Window of Tolerance (WOT) is a model/framework originally developed by prominent Mindfulness author Dan Siegel(2.) to illustrate the difference between “too much” and “too little” when identifying and working with our stress-response state. Dr Treleaven uses ‘grounding’ techniques (not dissimilar to the self-experimentation exercises made popular by Perls(3.) in the 1950’s!) involving breathing and posturing to gauge one’s mood, body sensations, and emergent narratives toward identifying our state of stress at any one moment.

The following diagram recognises that there is an optimal zone of physiological arousal, and identifies when we should take action (the ‘dysregulation’ zones) to prevent chronic stress reactions (the ‘hyper’ and ‘hypo’ arousal states).

What is your state of physiological arousal?

The following graph equates optimal arousal with being within your WOT:

Where do you place yourself now?

To assess your ‘place’ (in or out of your WOT), the following table lists signs and symptoms you may be able to sense if you take a quiet moment to become grounded and listen to your physical and psychological experiences ‘in the moment’.

Signs of Hyperarousal

BodyAgitation, difficulty relaxing, tingling, twitching, excessive breathing, easily startled, racing heartbeat, hot flushes, sweating, cold hands and feet, muscle tension, insomnia
ThoughtsRacing, repetitive, obsessive, intrusive, worrisome, scattered, poor memory or decision-making
FeelingsEuphoria, mania (high-low swings), anxiety, panic, flashbacks, nightmares, anger, or irritability
SensesSensitive/reactive to sound or light
SocialWithdrawn or disruptive, poor eye contact

Signs of Hypoarousal

BodyFlaccid muscle tone, pale skin tone, fixed stare, glassy eyes
ThoughtsBlank mind, ‘can’t think’, slow responses, slowed speech, ‘spacey’
Feelings‘Disconnected’, ‘flat’, apathetic, lack of meaning/motivation
SensesObjects appear ‘flat’, distortion of distance, high clarity or fog
SocialAvoidant, not seeking support, low eye contact, ‘feel fine’

Building resilience: widening your window

Hyper and hypo arousal cause a natural activation of defence responses which produce the signs and symptoms outlined above. Continual or prolonged activation can lead to health problems including substance use and abuse (‘self-medication’ which temporarily alleviates symptoms), immune, digestive and sleep irregularities, and emergence and exacerbation of relationship difficulties (it’s hard to be in harmony with others when defences are activated).

Resilience (the ability to ‘bounce back’ from adversity) equates with a wider WOT. Over time, Dr Treleaven asserts, the window may be widened by the following:

WOT Knowledge

Studying the model will allow you to understand why you are feeling ‘off’, ‘out of kilter’, or that you ‘just can’t cope right now’. You will be able to progressively get better at recognising when you are dysregulated, and build a bigger picture of how your WOT has changed over your lifetime and what events have or may in the future ‘trigger’ episodes of hyper or hypo arousal.

For many people, being ‘out of their window’ would normally lead to self-shame and feelings of hopelessness. WOT knowledge reassures us that we are responding naturally- to keep ourselves safe -as we face and react to rapidly changing environmental stimuli (see graph above) and motivates us to improve and increases self-compassion rather than reinforce a downward spiral of self-judgement and punishment.

It will also empower you with the information and language to optimise psychological therapy should you wish to pursue professional help.

WOT Tools

There are two types of tools based on the WOT model:

Firstly, those which help with locating your ‘place’- these are simple breathing and posture exercises and include ‘Wim Hof’ (YouTube) and ‘478’ breathing (involving 4 cycles of nasal inhalation for 4 sec, holding for 7 sec, and exhaling- with sound- through the mouth for 8 sec).

Amongst others, Australian Mindfulness practitioner Timothea Goddard’s techniques are recommended by Dr Treleaven, and there are many online exercise resources to try which are specifically informed by the WOT model.

Secondly, those which re-regulate arousal. That is, exercises and teachings to get you ‘back into your window’. These have specific contact, support, and containment aims depending on your particular place in the WOT at a given time.

Of course, the WOT journey is best guided by a registered psychologist, particularly one who practises Mindfulness therapy.

If any of the ideas presented here resonate with you, please feel free to contact this Centre for further information and/or to arrange an appointment.

References

  1. Treleaven, D. 2018. Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness. Norton Agency Titles.
  2. Siegel, Daniel J. 2012. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. Second ed. New York: The Guilford Press.
  3. Perls, FS et al. First pub.1951 Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. Gestalt Journal Press.

Acknowledgements

Mental Health Academy. Fortitude Valley QLD 4006 Australia

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