Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. You are listening to episode 34, titled Widening Our Window of Tolerance. The window of tolerance is a concept to help us check in with ourselves and return our nervous system to a grounded position while we are experiencing grief or trauma from any source. If this is a completely new concept, I recommend listening to episode 2, titled Opening A Window, where we discussed the window of tolerance as a flyover concept. Because today, I want to go deeper into managing our window of tolerance through self regulation practices. Hopefully, by the end of this you will have at least one go to tool for grounding when everything seems too big, too noisy, or too much.
I think it’s fair to say that right now, all of our nervous systems are on high alert. Between politics, school shootings, wars, and pandemics, things seem bleaker than ever. I’m personally working overtime to regulate my own nervous system and succeeding about 60% of the time. Everything around us is horrific. There is always good in the world, of course, but that doesn’t mean we have to push our pain aside and just appreciate what beauty exists. We need to learn how to come alongside our nervous system in support – changing how we navigate loss and tragedy all together.
The first step in widening our window of tolerance is acknowledging that all of our responses internally is our nervous system at work. In an ideal season of life, our nervous system alerts us to stressors and we navigate those with self awareness and measured responses. I love the description of our window of tolerance as a river. When you float down a river, the wider parts of the river see the flow of water moving more slowly, allowing us to feel relaxed and in control. We can see disruptions as they approach and make a plan to navigate them intentionally. When a river is more narrow, the water moves quickly and floating down it can feel less safe, to say the least.
That faster movement can lead us into dysregulation. This is where we start to feel really overwhelmed, recognizing that we are out of energy or a little bit uncomfortable. We’re not necessarily out of control but maybe we’re losing track of time. We might also go the other way where we feel agitated, anxious and start getting upset easily. Again, we are uncomfortable but not quite yet out of control. This is the opportunity we have to disrupt the natural self protection of our nervous system to fight, flee, or freeze.
And the strategies we employ to do so begin with our awareness. Noticing those moments of dysregulation empowers us to partner with our nervous system! It’s an incredible feeling to notice your own agitation, to pause, and recognize that you need (and want) to try something different in the moment.
So let’s transition and talk about the strategies. Because we use a whole self model at restorative grief, we are going to look at what it means to widen the river or reopen the window through methods of connecting with our mind, heart, body, and spirit. You may relate to one of these in particular and that’s great. You only really need one good strategy to disrupt your spiraling nervous system or at least get to a place where you can ask for more help. So I’m going to unpack 4 strategies, one for each area of our whole self. We are also talking about this actively in the Restorative Grief project, my private coaching group currently hosted on Facebook so feel free to request membership because it’s free and meaningful to have others you can converse with about this hard season we are all in the middle of.
So let’s start with the mind. Practicing mindfulness is a somewhat nebulous offering if you’re unclear on what it can mean, but it simply means to come back into the present moment by bringing your thoughts to your surroundings. You can become aware of surroundings through the 54321 exercise. Identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
You can also observe something in the room with you more intently, noticing the curves or edges, the weight and feel of the thing. Observe whatever brings your mind back to the present reality where you are in that moment, without allowing judgmental thoughts or interpretations to interrupt the practice. I find so many people are resistant to practice like this, and to be fully honest, I think it’s pride. As if some of us should be superhumans, able to resist basic instincts like a misfiring nervous system. If that’s you, I am lovingly asking you to give your nervous system a chance to say it needs help.
That brings me to the heart, and reducing shame. The shame we experience after dysregulation or even moving beyond dysregulation into what’s known as hypo arousal or hyper arousal is so limiting. Shame and pride prevent us from accessing simple tools like mindfulness and tell us we are intimately defined by our emotions and our actions. Neither of those is true. We can feel sad without being sad. Inherently, our being is only informed by our emotions. But when shame controls the narrative, it can be very overwhelming to consider challenging the heavy emotions.
Which leads me to another practice that so many of us avoid! My friends, journaling is not just for writers. It is for anybody that needs to express something. It has nothing to do with actually having a message to communicate or something to say. Expression is often wordless. So I want you to challenge your wild emotions when that river narrows by writing them down. You don’t have to write a full sentence. Think of this as an exercise in your vocabulary. Often in grief and stress, we don’t have the language we need to express what we are experiencing. There are beautiful emotion wheels available all over the internet that can help identify comfortable and uncomfortable emotions in a way that takes us from saying something as clear as I’m angry down to something as specific as why I’m offended and I feel insulted. Or I feel let down or resentful. The specificity gives us clarity, and clarity brings the vision necessary to identify shame and its source.
Have you ever felt shame in your body? I have. Sometimes we mistake the physical experiences of the nervous system as an ache or pain from another season of life, like an old injury. But the truth is, shame that we are scared, stressed, or grieving also manifests physically. Moving away from dysregulation in our bodies means engaging those senses again but with the intention to go beyond grounding and into expression. Embodying the thing that you need to reconnect with yourself.
Try engaging your senses with movement, smells, massage, food, or music. All the comfort things that remind you that you are present and safe. Maybe you need an angry run! If you can do it safely, go for it! I also highly recommend dancing or just shaking your body. I once watched a video of a gazelle after surviving an attack. She was stunned and frozen, but slowly began shaking her entire body as she rose from the ground, eventually returning to her life and walking away. You’re an animal with a bigger brain. Trying shaking your body around, if you can sometime. You might be surprised at how differently you feel.
Lastly, let’s talk about the spirit. This can be such a source of pain for us as we grieve. What once felt like deep connection to others, the world, or our faith practice can feel numb or even painful to touch. But if ever there was a time for some quiet, now is it. This is where we pause and decide. Do we want to reconnect with our spiritual side right now? If so, we need to move toward ourselves again with breathwork, self hugs, even when they feel silly, and stillness. I love a couple of yoga poses on moments like this that are restful. Corpse pose and legs up the wall pose take mobility but partnered with mindfulness, they can be the most restorative practice.
With any type of grief work, the purpose is to rebuild our connections to our self, others, and the world around us by fostering wellness and uncovering our purpose through value work. I know this is no small task and there are plenty of episodes on this show that can help you learn more about how to do all of those things. But more than anything, I want you to consider this one last thing about self care. Because all of this is a version of self care. We live in a culture that defines self care as treating yourself to expensive gifts, taking a day off of work and visiting the spa, or eating something rich and satisfying. But the truth is self care isn’t truly revolutionary unless it’s accessible to everyone. We don’t all have the privilege to take a day off, blow money on expensive shiny things, or even change how we eat for a day.
But our nervous system was created before cupcakes…which means it can be cared for without cupcakes. My apologies to the cupcake aficionados. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional treat, no matter what shape it takes. But truly caring for ourselves means recognizing that as we increase the feel good chemicals our nervous system perceives as safety signals, we start to feel more settled and in control. We do this through accessible actions like laughter, movement, sunshine, cold showers, creativity, going outside, listening to music, meditation, physical connection to others, and more. It’s a long list. And every single thing on that list widens our window of tolerance and increases our resilience in a lasting, genuine, and meaningful way.
Thank you for listening to episode 34 of Restorative Grief. It’s easy to believe that our resilience comes from simply surviving the myriad traumas we experience in life but our current culture actually created a pseudo resilience by teaching us had to cope and compartmentalize instead of processing our wounds and integrating our stories into our sense of self. Resilience isn’t built through repression, but through confession and connection.
If this is your first time listening to restorative grief, thank you for choosing such a meaningful episode to join us on. I hope you will choose to subscribe, and leave a review wherever you listen because that is exactly how you help other grievers and grief supporters find us as a resource whenever they need it – and that’s the whole reason this show exists.
And one last thing: The only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week..
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