Opening the Window of Tolerance for Calm – Part II

In this second part of Opening the Window of Tolerance for Calm, I am going to discuss a few tools.

Here’s the first new tool.  The technique is called Pendulation and it is often used to help people who have experienced trauma.  The purpose of this particular exercise is to help learn to shift our attention, giving us some control over our focus of attention.  This is a technique that asks people to shift their attention from a slightly uncomfortable situation, to a calming relaxing one.  Shifting their attention back and forth.  It is a little like working a muscle.

An example of this technique might be, when I hear the phone ring, or car horns, or a dog bark, I tense up.  Choose one tension causing situation, I choose the phone ringing.   I move my attention to the phone ringing that mildly bothers me, feeling my body and just recognizing how it feels.  Then I shift my attention to something that makes me feel relaxed, it might be the sound of a stream, or the ocean.  In my case I think about being outside on a beautiful warm comfortable day, looking up through trees.  I can see the sun twinkling between the leaves.  I really allow myself to be in this comfortable space.  Then I shift my attention back to the phone ringing.  Doing this pendulation, back and forth, between what annoys me and what relaxes me and practicing it for a few minutes.

The reason we start slow with a mild irritation is that we will do this often over time.  The goal is to build the muscle of our brain, flexing the wiring of our brain and increasing our tolerance for calm.  Several of my clients call it Brain Exercise.  Empowering us to know we can shift our minds, attention, and emotions from a tense situation to a calm one.  In this step, we have started the process of managing our emotional states.  And, in the example I just gave, moving from the emotional tension of the phone to the calm trees, the goal is to increase my ability to be in a calm space.  Some trauma is too great for us to tackle alone, and you may need to seek professional help.  But, for many people this technique can help them begin to manage their reactions.  I will be putting this technique into one of my podcast’s, so you may want to listen to it.

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Opening the Window of Tolerance for Calm – Part I

Let me start this article with the caveat, calm is not a place, it’s not just being able to breathe in a moment of trouble, it is in regard to this concept of calm, an ability.  It is the ability to manage our emotional and physical reactions so that we might be able to 1 handle ourselves better and 2 reflect back on events or memories, so that we might be able to understand them and gain a perspective to transform whatever crappy event in our past needs to be transformed into something useful for our lives.

I often work with people who have experienced  trauma.  Trauma can be as extreme as experiencing violence in a war or a family, to having lost a person who matters and grieving that loss, to a car accident.  Trauma could be anything.  And, trauma may show up as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anxiety, Addiction, Anger, or Shutting Down.

There is much new information on how the brain works, how it creates understanding and memories, and how trauma affects people.  There are many ways to help people develop skills to calm themselves down, it might be counting, breathing, meditating, or praying, but the idea is that if you can move your attention from the stressful situation and focus on these skills, it will help you calm down.  That is really true and good information.  What it doesn’t explain is why it doesn’t always work for people.

We are not all wired for calm the same way.  Again, calm is not just sitting quiet or taking a nap.  Calm for our purposes is the ability to shift our attention from a stressful situation or to be able to manage the anxiety that comes up when we discuss or relive a stressful event.  Calm is the ability to ‘reflect’ on our experiences.  Calm is something we are all technically capable of, but many people have not learned this skill, they may not be comfortable in a calm state, and they may not have seen any of their caretakers demonstrating calmness.  Like becoming calm, being able to tolerate that calm is a learned skill.

In many families, the presented calmness is really the calm before the storm.  So, kids who have grown up in abusive home may feel the pressure of the calm as pressure before the next dangerous eruption.  This occurs with victims of Domestic Violence also, the calm is a ticking time bomb about to explode and it doesn’t feel safe at all.  In fact you will often find people who have this sort of survival wiring through abuse, to actually trigger the abuser to erupt, because the waiting is so stressful.  So, now asking someone who is wired to survive in an abusive situation, to now find comfort in calm, may be a little unrealistic to begin with.

It is not just abusive backgrounds that don’t teach us to be good with calm.  Many people have grown up in non abusive homes, but really never saw their parents sit in calmness.  Their parents may have gotten stuck to the t.v. but this is shutting down or tuning out, not a comfortable tuning in and calming down.  Or, they may not have seen their parents be comfortable in a calm space, except on occasion.  Any crisis may have been handled with a ton of drama.  And, in fact, while the person may not like drama, there window of tolerance for drama may be very large and very open.  And so, for these folks, calm may not feel comfortable for them either.

For others, calm didn’t get them what they wanted.  And, calmness may be associated with being ignored, or forgotten, when our people ignore us if we don’t make noise we may create situations and events that lead to drama, for attention.  Creating messes so that we have some reason to get attention or help or whatever we are seeking.  Not all who seek attention are looking specifically for good attention.

These explanations are all leading me to why building a tolerance for calm is important.  In Daniel Siegal’s book, Mindsight, he discusses the need of the brain to be able to reflect inward towards itself, see the events of a lifetime good and bad, and be able to move that information forward and transform the memories into useful knowledge for the individual.  If we can’t look backwards at the events of our life, we are typically going to have those events haunt us in some dysfunctional ways.  I was recently told by a mentor of mine, if people can’t tolerate calm, they have only 3 ways to handle situations that trigger them, 1. Shut Down; 2. Use addictive behaviors; and/or 3. Muddle around in the painful place, maybe doing self harm like cutting or suicide. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try we can’t undo the past, the past comes up again and again in the choices that we  make about people, money, relationships, work, and how we take care of themselves.  It is the only reincarnation I can prove, because people create strategies for survival in an earlier time of their life and then they use that strategy in all future situations, even past the point that the strategies may not work anymore.

In Part II of this article, I will go over a few different tools.


What the Navy Seals Know

Several months ago I was watching a show on the history Channel called “The Brain.”  It was a fascinating program for several of the pieces that they documented.  The program really looked at how the brain operates under different circumstances. One of the segments of the show was a piece on training the Brain to manage stress, and specifically how the Navy is working to improve the passing average in the Navy seal program. What they found was about 25% of the troops in training the program were passing, but the Navy found that there were 5 to 10%  of each group of men that should have passed the Seal’s training, yet didn’t.  Some of these men quit in the last week, last days, or hours of the training.  So, the Navy set out to find out what key things these men needed in order to be able to pass the training.

What the Navy found was there were four areas that needed to be addressed and taught to the men, so that these 5%-10% of men might be successful in the Navy Seal training program.  The four areas that they discovered needed to be addressed were: Goal Setting; Visualization; Self Talk; and Arousal Control/Breathing.

Goal Setting: What the Navy found about goal setting was this, people needed to have very clear short-term, midterm, and long-range goals. What I mean by short-term goals is this, the person might need to be saying to themselves, “I can make it through this next minute,” “I can make it to lunch,” “I can make it one more step or I can make it one more mile.”  Midterm goals might look like, “I can make it to the end of this training day,” or “I could make it to the end of the week.” What long-term goals are, is the ability to remember what the greater purpose is, of any action. For instance, “I want to be a Navy Seal.”  And, for mere mortals, we might have a long term goal of being an Artist, or Writer, or own our own business.

Visualization or Mental Rehearsal: I’m using the terms, visualization or mental  rehearsal, interchangeably. But the Navy found was it was very important, for the person, to see themselves practicing training successfully in their mind. For instance, one of the images that stands out for me, was the underwater test. A Seal trainee, would be in a pool and their trainer would swim down and mess with their air supply. This would trigger a primal fear of drowning. The trainees, who visualized how to handle this situation successfully, tended to be far more successful in actual practice. Another example of this is something I saw most recently the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver Canada, while watching the downhill skiers, you might see them practicing turns or jumps in their heads moving their bodies around as they visualize themselves competing on the course or making a complex jump.

Self talk: They mentioned in the piece that the average person says between 300-7000 words per minute to themselves.  If the majority of that self talk is negative, it’s really no wonder that we can freak ourselves out of completing tasks.  Part of making self talk manageable is to first become aware that you are actually saying so much crap to yourself and then working on challenging the negative words and beliefs.

Dr. Amen of “Change your Brain – Change your Body” talked about asking 2 important questions when you were flooded with negative beliefs.  1. Do I know that this self talk or belief is 100% true?  and 2. What do I know that contradicts the negative self talk or belief?  So, for an example:  “I totally can’t finish anything I start!!!”  Question One: is this 100% true? I don’t know, maybe… maybe not.  Second question: what do I know that contradicts the thoughts? Well, I finished the laundry… I finished brushing my teeth… I fed the dog this morning… I finished this blog article…  Ok, it cannot be 100% true.

Breathing/Arousal Control: When we are having a stress reaction or Arousal Response to a situation (getting scared, anxious, nervous, angry, worried, etc – any strong negative emotion) our brain can have an amygdala trigger, flooding our body with the chemicals Cortisol and Adrenaline.  There are some other chemicals that the body also produces, but these two are very powerful.  We may notice that our hearts start to beat really hard, or our breathing gets quick and shallow.  Our bodies may start to shake or tense up, ready to Fight, Flee or Freeze.  Unfortunately, when we are in the middle of a intense arousal response, our ability to think through the situation is lost and we become very reactive.  What the focus on breathing does, is shift our attention away from the situation and as we work to normalize our breathing, we can calm our responses to situations.  This then will help us stabilize our brain back to a place where we can start thinking again.  Creating the wiring in our brain to calm ourselves in a stressful situation will help us make more effective choices, be less reactive and ultimately help us to survive the situation as best we can.

The Navy has the Seal’s train for stressful often combative situations over and over again.  These men learn skills and develop strategies to manage their reactions in the most intense and deadly situations.  As a quick aside, I am so humbled by how much they do in a days work.  And, I appreciate what they do for me each and every day.  But, the coolest thing we can learn from their training, is that we mere mortals can work on training our brain’s reactions and responses to be better!

If I don’t know about it then…

It is an interesting thing that happens in my work with people.  Several people will all have a similar issue come up at about the same time.  And, this week the thing that I heard in a few different ways, but all meaning the same, was “if I don’t know about something, then I can avoid personal responsibility.”  This really brought home to me how ‘we peoples’ sometime try to avoid that which we don’t want to have to look at.  I think this behavior shows up in addictive behavior (not paying attention to the harm done), it certainly shows up in relationships, and even in our work.  It is a way to prolong dealing with our personal rough spots.  The illusion, maybe hope, is that just maybe the issue will just disappear if we don’t think about it.

I was shown the Iceburg Theory not to long ago.  iceburg-theory What this theory says is that if you don’t like the results that you are getting, in any area, you have to follow it backwards, or down in this case, to the lowest hidden area, which is your thinking.  Now this is in conflict when people don’t like a outcome, but also don’t want to look at what is really happening, their reactions, their choices, etc.  You can ostrich through life, but it isn’t going to help you be effective.  In fact, sticking your head in the sand means your big fluffy ass is sticking up and the Lion can still see you!

One thing we need to understand, is that our beliefs and expectations are all tied up in how we think.  Anything that you say to yourself or anyone else, is in fact, a thought.  It can be negative or positive, but there are no times where you aren’t thinking.  The key here is that many of us don’t actually pay close attention to the thoughts we are having, we just ‘go with it’ and the price of that lack of consciousness is that we are surprised by how we feel about things or how we may be acting or reacting to an event.  I taught Anger Management for 7 years for the Air Force, I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “I don’t know, one second I was fine, the pow! I blew up.”  I am glad it doesn’t actually work like that.

From my perspective, emotions are a result of thinking. period. You cannot have an emotion without a thought attached to it, thoughts and emotions are tied together firmly.  So, an example would be for me to ask you, if you are feeling happy, what kinds of thoughts are you thinking? I feel good, this is fun, what a wonderful day, etc.  On the other hand, if you are feeling depressed, what are the thoughts you are thinking? This is terrible, awful, I can’t take anymore, this is hopeless, etc.  Then you have to look to see what sort of actions and behaviors are going to come out of these thoughts and emotions.  I like positive emotions, don’t we all, so lets say I am thinking I am doing a good job at work, I feel good and empowered, I like my job.  I will most likely bring to my job a good attitude, I am probably on time to work, have an animated voice, laugh often, and enjoy talking about what I am doing at work.  Now this is no guarantee, but I am guessing that this person who is liking there job, and thinking that they are doing good at the job, will also have the outcome of making good connections with the people they work with, will probably also be getting work done, and may have positive interactions with their supervisors or bosses.

Now for an example from the dark side… The result is that you are concerned that you may be in trouble at work.  No one has said anything obvious, but you don’t feel like you are doing your best and you are concerned that your bosses are unhappy with your performance.  If you adopt the attitude of “If I don’t know, then I don’t have to deal with it,” you will stop here.  For those of you who do, best wishes, but this won’t change time moving forward and the issue growing.  So, to break the If I don’t know, then I don’t have to deal with it,” pattern, you are going to have to follow the iceburg model down.  The observable is that maybe you have been coming in late, or there are pressures in the economy, or that there has been something that happened that has led to the outcome you have that you don’t like.  What are the emotions below the surface?  Fear? Anger? Resentment?  The emotions could be any, but below them are the thoughts that you are thinking… “I shouldn’t have to do… or “I have to do everything…” or “I don’t have the energy for this job,” or whatever it is.  This is where you have to start addressing your thinking.  Maybe you are being over-reactive and you need to calm your thoughts down, maybe you need to look at the thinking that keeps you in a job you don’t like, maybe you need to rethink what the goal you have is.  But, it is in this ‘thinking level’ that you can shift a negative result into a positive one.