Peering Through the Window of Tolerance

Introspection throughout these past weeks of silence on the dark Side has revealed a slowly ebbing state of emotional exhaustion brought about by applying a Puritanical work ethic to Exposure therapy. This…does not work.

One of the mental barriers I uncovered was a sneaky little belief that, if I take the time to really unpack and explain the inner workings of a very typical case of anxiety, readers will look at the volume of details and decide they added up to real trauma, determining I just might be too wounded to accomplish my goal of rehabilitating my service dog. If enough people believe that, then any public misbehavior on Greta’s part will confirm it and….

And I’m right back to believing that any mistake we make will Compromise the whole Americans with Disabilities Act!

Not only is that train of thought absurd, it’s also moot because I really don’t have that many readers. Not nearly enough to warrant fear of public opinion of any kind. I’m 100% certain that the public at large has no opinion of me an my dog at all, let alone a negative one. But exploring this fear that “details equals severity of symptoms” has allowed me to appreciate one of the reasons that the stigma against mental health disorders and care has persisted in our culture.

The stigma persists, at least in part, because we believe it does.

But if I give my few readers the benefit of the doubt, open wide up and share the minutia of my experience and the cogs and wheels that engineer such experiences, then I can contribute in an infinitesimal way to breaking down that stigma. Stigma is one of those things that only exists as long as people believe in it, kind of like fairies in childhood storybooks. But unlike mischievous sprites, stigmas add no delight or whimsy to the world. In point of fact, they add nothing of value at all.

So here goes! Today I’m going to verbally dissect a moment of panic.

My recent Trip to Oregon included a lot of fun Adventures and great training experiences. It revealed where Greta has improved, and specific areas to work on. It also revealed how much progress I’d made in resolving my anxiety about our teamwork and future, and areas in which I could do with more growth as well. Overall, I feel like Greta and I leveled up, and our trainer agrees.

There were a few instances that stood out as high points and low points, and some of a rather mixed nature. It’s one of these I’d like to share with you today. One of our scheduled adventures on the trip was a jet-boat tour up the beautiful Rogue River. The tour promised historic sites and fun on the water, and I was really looking forward to it.

I’d called in advance to find out if the tour was dog-friendly and was told only service dogs were allowed. Thus, the trip was considered safe for dogs, but there were unlikely to be any civilian dogs along. I could look forward to enjoying the trip, since Greta was unlikely to become stressed by a bunch of people sitting still on a boat.

We pulled into the parking lot next to the pier where we were to board, checked in, and got in line with other passengers to wait. And then someone pointed out to me that there was at least one, possibly more than one, unleashed dog wandering through the parking lot.

The dog was calm, not bothering any of the people, but loose dogs are more than a potential distraction for my poor greta, they can pose a very real Danger to any working dog.

When we inquired about the dog we were told it, and others, belonged to the tour company, and that every tour boat carried a dog on it.

Suddenly, instead of a thrilling, sunny adventure I was staring down seven hours of constant dog distraction.

The Window of Tolerance

This is a term primarily used in trauma work, but it applies to any state of anxiety outside the healthy range. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel defined the Window of Tolerance as the state of calm where a person’s brain functions at its best and has the widest range of functions available to it. You can read more about it Here.

Basically, if you can make reasonable decisions, laugh at a joke, recognize when you’re taking something too personally, come in and out of daydreams without much effort, and carry on most social, personal, and professional interactions without difficulty you’re in your window of tolerance.

If anxiety is so high you struggle with these tasks, you re outside your window of tolerance.

A person who doesn’t suffer from an anxiety disorder or trauma has a nice, wide window of tolerance. They spend most of their time in it, and life’s ups and downs might bring them near the edge of that window but rarely push them outside its boundaries. For someone with Post-Traumatic stress Disorder, this window is extremely narrow. For someone with a general anxiety disorder, this window is narrower than it should be, but not to the extreme as that of the person with PTSD.

Exposure Therapy and the Window of Tolerance

Exposure Therapy works by edging someone closer and closer to the boundaries of their window of tolerance, then easing them back into a sense of safety. This is accompanied by learning how to ground oneself during times of discomfort and how to care for oneself after a period of discomfort.

Greta and I had been Working on exposure therapy, entering parks and stores and coffee shops for short periods of time, then withdrawing and taking time to recover, while applying mindfulness skills both during and after our lessons.

The goal of exposure therapy is to push the boundaries of that window of tolerance farther and farther out, to widen it to a normal range. By edging past that boundary, then returning to safety, a person can claim more and more emotional territory and fit it within that window.

Tragically, those who have suffered single or repeated instances of life- or -personhood-threatening catastrophes spend most of their time outside their windows of tolerance, unable to access higher social functions and self-soothing techniques, organize their lives and care for their mental wounds.

In cases of PTSD and moral injury, exposure therapy is the very last step in a lengthy journey, rather than the primary phase of treatment.. This is the real key difference between treating anxiety and treating trauma-related disorders.

Unfortunately for me, I had spent most of this trip outside my window of tolerance. Hours and hours of exposure to stressful environments had tested my grounding skills without offering me much chance to use my self-care techniques to recover from the strain.

This probably had a somewhat negative impact on my ability to enjoy my time with my family, and their ability to enjoy my company, which I regret extremely. But I am profoundly grateful for how supportive and understanding they all were. And I confidently look forward to a time without this particular shadow looming over it. I have no doubt it will come.

As the horror of the next few hours hit me in the face I felt a wave of panic sweep through my body. There was a sense of detachment of rational thought from my sympathetic nervous system as I scrabbled for a response to the situation. I felt I’d been teased by letting a foot slide back across the boundary into my window, then had the ground yanked out from under me so that my grounding techniques were ineffectual.

We would board in 10 minutes. Whatever I decided to do, I needed to do it now. I had to decide whether or not to push through the fear, whether or not we could push through the fear, and whether or not we should push through the fear.

I had to calculate what this decision would say to those around us who had observed me and my service dog, what kinds of conversations I’d have about it with my family later. Would this have an impact on my long-term plans with greta? Would admitting defeat now mean I should give up entirely? If I couldn’t handle one boat ride, after handling two plane rides and a handful of restaurant outings and car trips, did that mean I really didn’t believe in Greta?

All of these questions presented themselves as the vague threat of failure, humiliation, regret, grief, and isolation. My ability to process the conversations going on around me, make a rational plan, determine whether or not I was overreacting, and keep myself from gathering a death-grip on Greta’s leash to stave off the certain doom of a public melt-down were unavailable to me. Those parts of my brain had begun to shunt their resources toward the primitive, self-defense-oriented part of my brain.

And yet, because I had spent years learning to observe my thoughts without getting Tangled in them, I was aware of all this. I was aware of the autonomic processes rearranging my potential. My coping skills weren’t entirely out of reach after all

“I want to go back,’ I said.

My mom and I got back in the car and drove the five minutes back to our beach house. And in that time, as the pressure of the moment slid away behind us, I felt myself returning to that precious window of tolerance. I was aware my mom had just given up her chance to go on the tour, and that I didn’t have the spoons to fight my guilt about that all day.

45 seconds of conversation convinced us both she’d have just enough time to drop me off and get back to the parking lot and join the tour! She made sure I was ok with the idea of hanging out at the beach house alone all day, that I was really going to be ok -, and then took off.

I was more than ok, I was thrilled!

I can’t explain enough how supportive my family has been through this whole experience, and on the trip itself, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a lot of internal conflict to deal with when they were around. Was I ruining the trip for them? No, but the question had to be asked and answered regularly. Was I talking about our difficulties too much? Was I dominating conversation, or being too quiet and self-absorbed? Did they think I was making a bigger deal out of things than necessary since they largely saw greta doing well, not freaking out?

These are the kinds of questions generated by a body in desperate need of an outlet for too much pent-up energy. But now I had an entirely empty day with all kinds of introverted possibilities into which I could channel that energy.

First, I channeled it into a beach-walk with Greta. Then I let it flow onto the digital page, outlining four books in four hours. Two of those are sequels to Modern Magic, one’s a spin-off of that series, and the fourth was this year’s NaNoWriMo project.

Someone once wrote that anxiety is movement trapped within the body. Clients often find that, upon stumbling back into their windows of tolerance, they feel jittery or restless. Their limbs may shake or they may feel their minds are so full of emotion it comes out as massive mood-swings or a harried sense of need without a clear idea of how to meet that need. Once that movement is released, it has to go somewhere.

For me, it comes out in bursts of creativity. I have noticed that manic hours of writing simply don’t happen for me as often as they used to. Instead, my writing process has smoothed out into an understated regularity of habit. That is because writing no longer needs to meet an intense need for self-expression. It is now an activity of pure enjoyment. But that afternoon at the beach house I threw myself into my favorite coping skill with wild abandon.

It’s important for me to note here that Greta and I do not have synchronized windows of tolerance. She doesn’t share my sense of responsibility for our pack’s reputation, and I don’t have daily jarring experiences that are clearly designed for a different species. My expectations of myself have to be different than hers, as is true for any two people who experience similar anxiety or trauma.

Sometimes life forces us outside of our windows of tolerance. We have options in these moments, but how available those options are depends largely on how much effort we’ve put into learning how to consciously recognize and move in and out of that window. Neither self-care nor coping skills alone are sufficient for this ability; both are required to build and maintain the mental agility required to process, tolerate, and integrate exposure to anxiety. This is true for those who do not suffer anxiety as well; the difference between developing an anxiety disorder, or not, often depends on this nurturing of mental agility.

My goodness, but it feels good to write to you again! Your favorite blindfluencer acknowledges her lengthy silence and promises to explain by way of a post about the way exposure therapy likes to turn the Puritan work ethic on its head. For now, though, all she has to say is… “I’m back! Did you miss me?”

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