From Overwhelm to Action

April 6, 2018

stopWhen a challenge we’re facing in our lives or in the world feels overwhelming, we often have difficulty taking effective action right when we need to the most. The good news is that there are practical steps we can take to increase our emotional resilience in times of adversity and come back from overwhelm when it does occur. One of the most important steps is understanding and tracking our emotional window of tolerance.

Our Window of Tolerance

Each of us has a unique window of experience within which we’re able to function most effectively. This window changes from day to day depending on how many stressors we’re facing. If we don’t get enough sleep, nutritious food, play time, loving connection, alone time, or whatever else we need to feel well, an experience that would normally be well within our window of tolerance can overwhelm us. This window is also different from person to person, and is affected by experiences of trauma, racism, sexism, poverty, or other stressors in our lives.

Comfort Zone

Can you remember a time this week when you were feeling fairly relaxed, at ease and well? Can you remember how this felt in your body? This is your comfort zone. You may notice your breathing slowing down, and your body relaxing a little just remembering it. Though this is a really nice place to be, if we stay too long in our comfort zone, we become bored, restless, and unsatisfied.

Learning Zone

Can you remember a time this week when you were feeling challenged in a good way? Perhaps you were trying something new or difficult, facing a problem, or involved in a difficult but important conversation. Can you remember how this felt in your body? This is what I call our learning zone. It’s not comfortable, but the discomfort we feel is tolerable and worth it because we’re learning new things, solving problems, and responding to life’s challenges.

Trigger Zone

Can you remember a time this week when you felt triggered by a situation or memory? Can you remember how this felt in your body? When we are triggered, we leave our window of tolerance, and our bodies go into either a hyper-aroused fight/flight response, where our instinct is to lash out or leave, or a hypo-aroused freeze response, where we disconnect and shut down. Our brains literally go offline, and we cannot receive, process, or integrate information. This means that when we’re outside of our window of tolerance, we cannot talk through a problem, or think through actions and consequences.

Emotional Resilience

The first practical step we can take to increase our emotional resilience when facing a significant challenge is to plan for it. Planning how we will track our stress level, what we will do to self-soothe when we begin to feel stressed, and what we will do to take care of ourselves if we become triggered is key to increasing our emotional resilience.

One simple way to track the amount of emotional stress you’re experiencing is to check in with yourself regularly and rate the stress you’re feeling from 1 to 10. If you notice your stress levels rising to 7 or 8, it’s time to put your self-care plan into action, and do what you need to self-soothe and ground yourself so that you can stay within your window of tolerance. You can find some grounding techniques here and here.

If you do get triggered it’s important to have a plan to do whatever is most effective for you, and for however long is necessary to come back to your window of tolerance before returning to the problem at hand. Check out a couple of grounding tools here and here.

The pay off for all of this planning and hard work is that when we are able to support ourselves and each other in challenging situations, we can figure out what steps we need to take next to create the thriving relationships, work environments, and world we want.

It’s hard work, but it’s worth it!