As humans, we need to be able to flow between arousal and relaxation.

The job of our nervous system is to regulate our level of arousal based on our perception of the environment. When it succeeds in striking this balance, we find ourselves in what Dan Siegel calls the “window of tolerance”, where we can experience an optimal level of internal activation and feel connected with the environment. What are some examples? You are probably within your window of tolerance when you feel excitement that helps you focus and perform during a challenging task. Or when you feel the relaxation spreading in your body after a workout.

We can actively help our nervous system find balance in our everyday life by introducing what Diane Musho Hamilton refers to as “sameness” and “difference”. We are wired to relax and feel safe when we experience “sameness”. We feel comfortable around people who share our beliefs and ways of relating. In contrast, various kinds of “difference” tend to arouse us. Again, balance is the key. Too much difference and we feel threatened and defensive. Too much sameness and things become dull and uninspiring. 

The more familiar we are with the texture and range of sameness and difference in the body,
the more skillfully we can work with them.”

– Diane Musho Hamilton

Jumping out the window

When something appears threatening, our sympathetic nervous system automatically secrets cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body to respond to the threat. You are probably familiar with the experience of having these hormones circulating in your system. In the right amount, the level of arousal helps you feel engaged and energised. But when the amygdala over-interprets the threat, you get thrust out of your zone; you get “hyper-aroused”. When this happens, you lose your ability to think clearly and start acting impulsively. You have left your window of tolerance. Just think about the last time you got really agitated. Perhaps someone said or did something that really triggered you. Did the arousal help you have a better conversation?

In contrast, when the parasympathetic nervous system pulls the brakes too hard, we go beyond relaxation into “hypo-arousal”. When we feel exhausted or “zoned out”, we have once again left our window of tolerance. In this state, we tend to lose touch with our bodies and the environment. Think of the last time you felt exhausted and uninspired. Did this type of response help you find peace and rejuvenation?

Using our bodies to build a bigger window

“If the ground is covered with thorns, you can spend all your time trying to clear the path,
or you can take on a pair of shoes.

We cannot always control our environment or other people, but we can increase our window of tolerance. We do this by remaining aware of the body as we feel ourselves becoming triggered. This doesn’t come naturally. When we are thrust into hyper-arousal or sink into hypo-arousal, we tend to leave our bodies and get carried away by the story that justifies our feelings. We become “limbically hijacked” and are unable to call upon our rational mind. 

The key is learning to stay with the somatic experience as we feel the arousal build up. If we can attend to what happens in our body with mindful curiosity, we are much more likely to keep the higher cortical structure of our brains engaged. This gives us access to logical reasoning and we can remain sovereign in the situation. Even if we cannot fully control our response to stress, we can start to respond to it more wisely. Simply by noticing “Oh, I’m feeling my body reacting to a threat”, we can take a timeout and avoid acting out the anger in ways we later regret.

As we learn to stay with the arousal without getting overwhelmed, our window of tolerance naturally starts to extend. We become capable of staying open and present with a wider range of situations and circumstances (and “differences”). This is freedom!

Coming back home

The critical point of the whole thing is that we turn on the exact same stress response as the zebra running for its life … and we turn it on for entirely psychological reasons, and that’s the punch line of the entire field – that’s not what it evolved for. For 99% of beasts on this planet, stress is about screaming terror after which it’s either over with or you’re over with, and what do we do, we turn on the same stress response for 30 year mortgages.

– Dr. Robert Sapolsky (“Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”)

When the arousal that was meant to mobilise our energy and save our lives stay in our system for long periods of time, we feel the effects of long-term stress.  Even as we learn to increase our window of tolerance, we sometimes need to signal to our nervous system that the threat is over. The practice “progressive relaxation” can be an excellent way to calm down the system. It also helps us find the balance by working with muscular tension and relaxation.

Progressive relaxation – Guided meditation with music – 15 min:

Continue with these Frames:

Coming back to our senses