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Ever get that feeling where you know you feel bad, but you aren’t exactly sure what might help you feel better?
Wish you knew that the heck was going on, so you could try to have more control? Since I struggle with all of these things, I dedicated Week 31 of The Tending Year to researching and writing practical tips for how to practice what I call Emotional Agency.
I’ll talk about two tools in this blog post—the Window of Tolerance and the Feelings Wheel. These tools are particularly useful for people who have trauma histories and who have PTSD or Complex-PTSD (like me!), but they are adjustable for anyone who would like to have a better awareness and control over their emotions and learn how to bring yourself back to the present moment when you feel a little (or a lot) haywire.
What is the Window of Tolerance?
Developed by psychiatrist Dan Seigal (who also developed the term “mindsight”), the Window of Tolerance is that wonderful place where we cope and function smoothly and intentionally. According to GoodTherapy’s Psychpedia, “when people are within this zone, they are typically able to readily receive, process, and integrate information and otherwise respond to the demands of everyday life without much difficulty.” The Window of Tolerance originated in trauma healing and is used to discuss PTSD symptoms, but it has become a feature of self development that aims to help people have more agency over their reactions to stressors.
The word “tolerance” refers to a well functioning state of psychological and physiological arousal where we are able to problem solve, make decisions, and generally go with the flow. When we are outside of our Window of Tolerance, we experience hyperarousal and hypoarousal.
Hyperarousal is described as the “fight or flight” response, and is “often characterized by hypervigilance, feelings of anxiety and/or panic, and racing thoughts. Hypoarousal is described as the “freeze” response, and “may cause feelings of emotional numbness, emptiness, or paralysis.” The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine has generated a wonderful visual representation of the Window of Tolerance (see below or click here for a full screen, printable PDF). They put an image of a volcano near hyperarousal and an iceberg by hypoarousal, representing the “fight or flight” and “freeze” symptoms.
Gain More Emotional Awareness
If you’d like to better determine how you feel, you should check out a Feelings Wheel (also called an emotions wheel). There are many different options online with a simple Google search, but I like the one below by Geoffrey Roberts:
To use a Feelings Wheel, start at the center and work your way out. In this wheel, you have 7 options at the center: Happy, Sad, Disgusted, Angry, Fearful, Bad, and Surprised. Choose whichever general word from these 7 that aligns most with what you feel. Next, branch out to the middle ring and see which feelings you most fit into that split off your center choice. For example, if you stated that you felt Angry, which of the 8 examples do you align with the most? Finally, split off once more into the outermost wheel and choose the next branched off emotion. If you had selected Angry > Mad, are you feeling Jealous? If you had selected Sad > Lonely, are you feeling more Isolated or Abandoned? With this knowledge, you are more able to choose a coping mechanism that fits your particular emotion.
Sometimes your emotions might not neatly fit into the wheel. For example, I sometimes get overwhelmed and basically feel like the cat in this gif:
When I feel this combo of negative emotions, I feel thisclose to self-sabotaging and driving off into the sunset, middle fingers up to my responsibilities. In the past, that place led me to reach for coping mechanisms that seemed to help on the short term (like smoking a cigarette or buying something expensive online), but those mechanisms didn’t really address the issue at hand, which may have been that I needed to set more explicit boundaries, ask for clearer instructions on an assignment I’d been given, or simply put my phone on silent for an hour and take a nap until I could see the situation more clearly. But if I take a minute to breathe and use the Feelings Wheel before I tell someone off or make a rash decision, I can identify my actual emotions as a combination of indignant + stressed and choose a much healthier coping mechanism.
Identify Your Actual Feelings
The next time you’re feeling bad or even meh, try using the above Feelings Wheel to identify your emotions as clearly as possible. Once you do that, try to answer the following questions:
I feel ______.
I need _____.
The goal here is twofold: to learn how to self-soothe and cope in healthy ways, and to clearly identify if you need outside help and what help you need so you can explicitly and directly ask for it. Do you need them to listen without critiquing you? Do you need to ask their opinion? Do you need to cancel or reschedule plans? Is it better to ask your best friend, your therapist, your boss, or your online support group? If you can identify how you feel and what you may need to feel better, you will likely feel a more validated and have more agency. Also, remember that sometimes what you may need is to just hold space for your bad feelings with as little judgment as possible until they pass.
How Do I Get Back To My Window of Tolerance?
What I like about NICABM’s diagram is that they recognize the state of dysregulation, where you’re starting to feel fiery/angry/tense (hyperarousal) or spacey/numb/shutting down (hypoarousal). If you can catch yourself when you start to dysregulate, you can use mindfulness techniques to help calm and focus your mind and body to return to your Window of Tolerance.
If you think you may be experiencing hyperarousal or hypoarousal, see if you can practice a mindfulness exercise to bring yourself back to the present moment. It is important to recognize that your feelings are valid. It is also important to remain curious about whether or not your emotional response is warranted for the situation. Are you feeling an intense fight, flight, or freeze response? Are you truly in danger?
The key is to recognize that your perception is off, that your body and mind are responding in ways that are not appropriate to the level of threat in the current situation, and then to calm yourself down to get back to your window of tolerance.
These are some of the questions that help me to become aware of my surroundings and reassure myself that I am safe when I am experiencing hyperarousal (which often occurs during an emotional flashback):
- What do I hear, see, smell, feel, or taste at the current moment?
- Where am I? Do I remember driving or walking to my location?
- Have I historically been safe in this space?
You can also use techniques like EFT/tapping (instructions here) as a way to calm your nervous system and validate your negative emotions while also bringing yourself back to your present moment.
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.