Sailing With Anxiety, Stress Management

Tantrum Prevention 103: Growing Your Window of Tolerance

My 1976 wiring nightmare. An opportunity to grow!

At this exact moment typing I am procrastinating on working over my electrical diagrams. We all have our strengths and numbers are not mine. I’m dyslexic, specifically with numbers. I switch them around and am constantly course correcting, triple checking and stressing. When someone hands me the bill for dinner I have a stress response to writing in the tip. As a therapist, I can talk about the nuances of my feelings and experience of this stress all day. Doing the math, not so much. Talking about AC/DC loads with watts, voltage and amps pretty much stops my brain before anything comes out my mouth.

Yet here I am stretching my edge and pushing my brain to the limit trying to redo my entire 43-year-old electrical system on my own. I’m getting help from Eric, hiring a professional to look it over, reading a lot of books and websites, and I took some classes. One was from the great Nigel Calder himself, the guru of marine mechanics and electrical. The issue is not about enough resources or support, it’s about my poor brain. Honestly, about every five minutes I want to quit, get pissy, distract, eat something, go on social media, and generally fuck off. I dream of sail trim and just about everything and anything else sail related other than this. I am even looking forward to bulk head replacement more. Epoxy seems like a walk in the park compared to this fucking diagram, and that shit gives me a literal headache.

Here is a diagram I like and an easily talk about:

Image by Marie Dezelik, PhD

This is about the window of tolerance. It was coined by a psychologist I am a fan-girl of, Daniel Siegel. Inside the window our heart rates are calm and we are thinking clearly. We can problem solve, make conscious choices and engage what is in front of us in an authentic and creative way. We have good tolerance of frustration and can easily work through challenges. Our bodies and minds are integrated and working together optimally. Outside of the window is a shit show. When we get stressed we generally have two routes: hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal.

Hyper-arousal is when we spin our wheels really fast but get little done. It is where we yell or scream, cry or shout, these are the external tantrums. Or it is when we start planning and making manic lists, stressing out and killing ourselves to make stuff happen. We obsess and can’t stop, but are not very effective. This is where we might actively run in the other direction and clean the house or organize our sock drawers rather than do electrical diagrams. We might go wash the car, help a friend, or do a million other things rather than what we need to be. Our minds spin and we fill the space. This is more on the panicked side of stress, it is essentially fight or flight.

Hypo-arousal is the other side of the coin. This is when we get in bed and put he covers over our head and quit. We repress, internalize and shut down our tantrums into a vortex of sticky heavy shameful stuckness. We watch Netflix for 12 hours or surf the net aimlessly all day. We may space out and go blank, we forget or distract. Life is a hazy fog, we aren’t in our bodies much. We check out and reach for pot, cookies, a beer. The distractions on this level tend to be more physically addictive. Our minds dull and we let go into space. This is more on the depressive side of stress, it is essentially freeze and faint.

Everyone has had these responses in one way or another at various times. We go outside our window of tolerance when we are stressed. We get stressed when faced with situations that are familiar in a challenging or traumatic way. We also get stressed when faced with situations that are unfamiliar and new, when we have no idea what we are doing. Humans need a certain amount of stress to learn and grow, but going too far into stress disables us. Going up into these windows for a bit then recovering back into the window helps us grow. Your window becomes bigger and less stresses you out when you do this. Staying in hyper or hypo arousal for long periods becomes a habit in your nervous system which creates problems over time. That’s why we have to learn to work with it.

I swing between the two every time I do this electrical. This is partly because it is new and I have no idea what I am doing. It is also partly because numbers are a trigger I have had from childhood. When we are triggered, a part of our brain chains back to every relatable experience we’ve ever had. Essentially, a part of me is 8 again, sitting at the kitchen table in tears over math homework for the millionth time. A part of me is 12 with my teacher asking me if I was stupid in front of a snickering class when I kept saying the answer backwards. A part of me is my whole life of various men telling me that I can’t be mechanical or handy because I am a girl. All of these link to where my brain goes to varius shameful and maladaptive stories of, “you can’t do this.” I then vacillate between external and internal tantrums.

So what’s a gal to do? REGULATE. How do we regulate? BY GETTING OUR HEART RATE DOWN. How do we do that? BY COMING INTO THE MOMENT WITH INTENTION.

You see, a part of our brain is very primal and limbic. This part runs our bodies and sensory input. This is where our bodies process stimulation and sort it into something either non threatening, enjoyable, sketchy, dangerous, or HOLY SHIT I’M UNDER ATTACK! Another part of our brain is very cognitive. This runs all of our ordering and sequencing, logic and choice. This is where time and language are. You may think you are thinking clearly when you are upset, but science tells us you aren’t. No one is. When we are stressed a wall starts to form between these two parts of our brain and they aren’t talking so well, we aren’t performing so well.

Hyper-arousal people can be doctors, firefighters and such and are able to bypass their bodies and that limbic system to perform. They keep their thinking brains online to perform tasks, and often at the expense of their own bodies and heart rates. Which is why they also often struggle with anger, addictions and anxiety and depression outside of work. Hypo-arousal people get stuck in their limbic system, losing access to the computer. These are the folks who lose their talking points completely when they do public speaking. The ones with great intentions and difficult follow through.

The key is to get both these parts of our brains talking. When the limbic system is calm, heart rate normal, our brains and bodies work great. We are functioning and clear. When we get too stressed, we need to pause and get these two parts of our noggins, body and brain, online together in the same place and time. We do this by orienting to something neutral or soothing. This is why I am a huge fan of breaks. I try to pay attention and know when I am starting to stress and go into hyper or hypo arousal. When I do, I get up, and I walk around. I do it intentionally and mindfully, trying to get my brain and body to reboot. Depending on the level of stress and how many stress hormones that have been released people need anywhere from a 2-30 minute break on average. Here are some suggestions on how to do this.

  1. BREATHE, fully and with intention on expanding and slowing down.
  2. Name your feeling. Research says connecting words to your felt experience is integrating and therefore regulating. “I am stressed right now.”
  3. Name what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, take a little sensory break.
  4. Go to another task for a specific amount of time that is neutral, like put away clothes, organize tool box, or wipe down head.
  5. Go to another task that is soothing like make a cup of tea, have a snack, sit outside and look at the sky or water for a specific amount of time.
  6. Talk to yourself like you would a friend. We tend to be hard on ourselves, running old story lines. Tell yourself you are doing something new, that you will learn, that it is okay to be frustrated.
  7. Think of a happy place or of something else that you enjoy. Giving your mind a 2 minute break can reset it. Our brains also respond as if we are there when we visualize, so imagine in detail.
  8. Talk to a friend. Tell someone what you are going through, it helps normalize it because everyone has been there.
  9. Listen to some music, take a walk down the dock, have a sense of humor. All are critical to boat tasks.
  10. Remind yourself of other times that you had tasks or problems that stressed you out and how you got through them. Remind yourself you are trying and learning, adjust expectations. Remind yourself of your grit, of your strengths.





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