Feelings February pt2: The Nervous System & Window of Tolerance

 In Conflict management training

This weeks Feelings February is going to look at the nervous system and what happens during periods of activation. Last week we learned about how feelings are a representation of that emotional activation. Likewise, our nervous system experiences that activation and prepares our body for self protection (flight or flight or freeze or fawn). What results are the physiological and behavioural symptoms of hyper or hypo arousal.

Conflicts have the ability to bring many of us into states of high activation, sometimes on and off for long periods of time. We feel threatened or unsafe and as a result we experience this through feelings of anxiety, panic, rage or other overwhelming emotions (hyper) or dissociation, lethargy, collapse, or depression (hypo). These are just a few examples of what this can look like for folks. See graph below for more details.

a chart describing the window of tolerance in three sections. the highest in orange displaying the state of hyper arousal; the middle in green describing optimal arousal; and the bottom in blue describing hypo arousal
Window of Tolerance

The Window of Tolerance is a concept used to support us in learning about our arousal levels and what feels calm/regulated for us and what feels out of control or unregulated. It is a powerful tool for promoting regulation and body and brain integration.

What does it look like for you when you are outside the boundaries of your window? What does hyper or hypo states of arousal look and feel like in your body and mind? When we are outside of our window it becomes harder for us to be able to see beyond ourselves. That intense flooding of emotion and its accompanied physiological states can make people unresponsive, irrational, defensive and unable to have full control over their thoughts and behaviours. In conflict, this can lead to very quick escalation or shutting down.

When you or someone is outside of your window of tolerance, dialogue becomes difficult and learning almost impossible. It’s hard to be accountable when you are in a reactionary or self protective state. The best times to try and remove ourselves from a situation is before we’ve left our window.

What clues does your body give you when you’re moving outside your window? Maybe it’s time to stop a dialogue when you notice rage beginning to build and bubble up inside you (where do you notice it?). Maybe you have to find another time to reconvene when you notice your ability to breath properly is being impeded by anxiety (what does calm versus anxious breathing feel like?). Noticing these clues and calling for a time out is a de-escalation tool but it is also a way to stay engaged in conflict. Rather than escalating it by saying/doing something we don’t mean, we realize we need time to get back into our window so we can be fully present and engaged in the dialogue.

If someone asks for a time out, this is someone putting forward a boundary and that boundary should be respected. When someone notices they can no longer be in dialogue with you and need time to return to their baseline, rather than seeing that as someone trying to avoid or shut things down, view it as someone noticing and honouring their boundaries. This may be a good reminder to check in on yourself and your state, as well.

Tip: When in these states of activation, using neocortical brain functions like applying logic or reason will not work (remember that emotions happen in the limbic brain). Emotional validation and strategies for regulating arousal are more likely to be successful.

Next week: we’ll start exploring some popular emotions that show up in conflict and some arousal regulating strategies!

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