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.