During this current pandemic where fear and anxiety are running high we thought it might be helpful for us to talk about the way our brains process difficult situations. This a current traumatic event for the world, for our communities, and for our families and us individually. What our brain has experienced in the past determines how we respond to the current day happenings. How can we understand how to calm down our fears and anxieties?
When we experience trauma, it changes our brain, its responses/reactions to stimuli, and can influence our window of tolerance (our ability to tolerate uncomfortable emotions). Our Amygdala is a part of our brain that is like a smoke detector, which is also scanning our environment for danger. (So if it were to detect smoke) it would communicate with our Limbic brain which controls our fight, flight, and freeze responses (Signaling we are not safe because there could be a fire).
After experiencing trauma our amygdala stores that information so that it can alert us to danger in the future. The Dalai Lama once said, “Once bitten by a snake you feel suspicious even when you see a piece of rope.” The amygdala and limbic system do not take the time to discern whether the information observed is current or a reminder of past trauma. When this happens we are in a “flipped lid” state and our limbic system is in charge and not our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brains that is responsible for reasoning, rationalization, mood control, and language. When we are in a flipped lid state such as panic, fear, or rage the limbic brain shuts down our prefrontal cortex and is only able to receive about 12 words at a time when in that state.
As we learn to soothe and regulate those heightened emotions, we are increasing our ability to appropriately self soothe as well as to be able to learn what information those emotional states may be holding for us. Our brain works hard to help us take in process and respond to stimuli. This does not mean that I always like its response in the moment, but I am grateful for its ability to help me survive.
One example of a flipped lid state, a war veteran may come home and upon hearing a car backfire the amygdala and limbic system may immediately look to run, hunker down for safety, or return fire. When we take the time to process our trauma and heal, we begin to disarm the amygdala and limbic system so that the next time we hear a car backfire our prefrontal cortex can identify, “when I heard the car backfire it reminded me of the sounds I heard in war” thus it does not perceive that we are in current danger, but a reminder of danger. By identifying and addressing our triggers and how they impact our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors we are increasing our window of tolerance as well as our ability to be a functional adult.
Think of a time that you felt your body overreact. You might have even known there was nothing to be scared of, but the survival brain – limbic system – jumped online to ensure you were safe. Unfortunately we are not always attune to the changes in our brain’s response so you can feel helpless or powerless and use unhealthy behaviors to numb our responses.
The window of tolerance is a concept that involves our capacity to tolerate and be present in the face of stress, pain, discomfort, and triggers that may be known or unknown. By allowing ourselves to safely feel and process current situations we are engaging from our prefrontal cortex and not the limbic brain which allows us to be tolerant and present. Without doing our own work, we can quickly get outside of our window of tolerance and get stuck in a hyperaroused state such as panic or can go to the opposite extreme of hypoaroused where we are shut down emotionally.
Outside the window of tolerance, we may even engage in unhealthy patterns or behaviors numb an uncomfortable state of feeling.
You have a right to heal and a right to be present in life today safely. By continuing to do our work we build an ability to operate within a healthy window of tolerance, which also allows us to be more present with others and ourselves. We do not have to be stuck on on or stuck on off for us to safely navigate discomfort and stress.
Identifying and engaging in safe and healthy coping skills as well as ongoing self care are important for things we are familiar with, but also critical for safely navigating the unknown as well as larger scenarios that can bring up fear and panic. Grounding skills such as naming 5 things you can see – 4 things you can hear – 3 things you can feel/touch can help us to find balance through an active distraction to bring the intensity back down to a manageable level.
Breathing techniques such as counting while you breathe in, holding your breath for a specific count, and counting while you exhale can also be incredible beneficial in decreasing heart rate and tension while allowing the limbic brain to calm. As we are all facing change during this time it is important that we continue to engage in routine self care and healthy coping to safely manage stress levels which will help allow us to tolerate stressors and be present in healthy ways. Mindfulness, paying attention on purpose without passing judgment, is another beneficial practice for wellness.
By steven brinkworth