Have you ever noticed that when you are feeling scared or worried that your mind gets flooded with negative thoughts and irrational beliefs? Maybe you start feeling tightness in your chest or even a pit in your belly? Maybe your worries turn to panic and that tightness in your chest begins to close in on you, mimicking the feeling of heart failure. This sensation is anxiety and it can have a powerful effect on your body and mind.
Sometimes we need to slow down and take a step back to notice the importance of our internal experiences and listen to what our bodies are trying to tell us. Fear is a natural sensation that human beings evolved to take very seriously. However, in situations where there is no immediate threat, we can learn to identify, observe and accept this emotion as it is, along with its accompanying sensations, and we can begin to feel it dissipating. How does the mind really have that much power over the way we think, feel and behave? Let’s break it down.
The Evolution of the Stress Response
During times of perceived threat or danger, humans instinctually respond in one of two ways: Fight/Flight and/or Freeze. If we take the Fight/Flight route we become hyper-aroused; anxious, overwhelmed, chaotic, aggressive, and angry, which can result in rigidness, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and thoughts, impulsivity, substance abuse, and a disruption in normal eating and sleeping patterns. On the contrary, if we take the Freeze route, we become hypo-aroused; numb, out of touch with reality, and emotionally unavailable or shut down, which can appear to others like we are on autopilot.
When humans become triggered by a certain stimulus that poses a substantial amount of pain and discomfort and they have not learned the proper techniques to keep their body and mind in check, they can either become hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused. In both cases, they have left what psychologists call their “window of tolerance.” The window of tolerance is basically our human homeostasis, our happy place, where we feel cool, calm and collected. In other words, when we are hanging out in our window of tolerance, we have the ability to self-soothe and regulate our emotional states. So what causes us to leave the window of tolerance? Fear of unconscious thoughts or bodily reactions, loss of control, feeling unsafe, fear of abandonment or rejection, and trauma-related core beliefs that result in emotional and physiological dysregulation.
Staying Within the Window of Tolerance
Just like gravity, what goes up must come down. Though certain circumstances may prompt us to leave our window of tolerance, the flipside is that we can also implement techniques to stay within it. Engaging in mindfulness, deep breathing, exercising, and becoming aware of our irrational and limiting beliefs are a few of the many grounding tools that keep us centered in the here and now. This is where the power of the body-mind interconnection really begins to take action. When we learn to control our instinctual reactions and take a curious and non-judgmental stance when observing our thoughts, emotions and physical sensations, we begin to anchor ourselves in the present moment. In other words, instead of becoming engulfed by an experience, we can learn to acknowledge it and let it go like a visitor. So the next time you feel consumed by your emotions, you can try taking a step back to stay in the moment and regain control.
Ashlyn is a registered social worker who specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, mood disorders and addictions. She received her Masters degree from the University of Toronto and specializes in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy.