When windows get smashed

The window of tolerance after Cyclone Gabrielle is shifting. Here’s what it means for response and recovery. 

In Dan Siegel’s book, The Developing Mind, he describes how everyone has a range of intensities of emotional experience that they can comfortably experience, process and integrate. This is the ‘window of tolerance’, and it varies widely. For some, this window is wide: they can feel reasonably comfortable even when experiencing high levels of emotional intensity. It can also span a wide range of emotions, from pleasant, like joy and excitement, to unpleasant, such as anger or shame. People with a wider window of tolerance can also think, feel, and behave flexibly, even when going through extreme and potentially traumatic experiences.

When the window of tolerance stays wide

This is our best-case scenario: when potentially traumatic events happen in our lives, we have enough experience and range of coping with past events, are well-practised and effective at regulating our emotions, and haven’t experienced too much trauma previously in our lives, meaning that we have a wide window of tolerance. This means that we are more likely to stay present, flexible, open, and grounded when awful things happen. We can think calmly, even when chaos may surround us, without feeling either overwhelmed or withdrawn.  

In those areas affected by Cyclone Gabrielle and the Auckland Storms of recent days and weeks, what we are seeing now is what happens when we move beyond the upper and lower boundaries of this window. Here’s where we see the fight/flight and freeze responses we are familiar with. 

Hyper and hypo-arousal

People have been talking about the adrenaline that has taken them through the first few days of the response after the Cyclone passed. The hyper-arousal, beyond the upper zone of the window of tolerance, commonly brings physiological activation and excessive energy, but also agitation, too. We can become alert to and deal with threats, but it can leave us feeling anxious, irritable or angry. We can feel out of control or overwhelmed, as well as distrusting of others. 

The zone of hypo-arousal beyond the lower boundary of the window of tolerance is what we are seeing people enter and talk about. In this state, we may conserve energy and ‘shut down. We can feel numb and want to withdraw and isolate ourselves from others. We can feel foggy-headed, exhausted, flat, powerless, hopeless and helpless. 

It’s important to remember that, as well as all the above, we may also become quite cut off from our own emotions and bodily sensations. This may be a way of detaching from what is a genuine threat – the daunting nature of the task that faces those who have been affected by these traumatic weather events, and the hard path that lies ahead. 

Avoiding the doom loop

So what happens next and how can we help? Here’s the risk: even the smallest stressful event for people operating outside their usual window of tolerance can feel overwhelmingly stressful. They can respond with either hyper or hypo-arousal. Continued stress may make them feel that the world is unsafe, and their window of tolerance narrows. That can lead to a negative feedback loop, causing people to operate in a heightened state of vigilance for danger, and to react to perceived or real threats with flight, flight or freeze responses. Persistent states of hyper-arousal may not only lead to a narrow window of tolerance, but it may also lead to the experience of mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety, or traumatic stress responses. 

Beyond the opposite edge of tolerance, people who are spending long periods of times in hypo-aroused states of flatness, exhaustion, hopelessness and helplessness may experience cognitive and memory issues, and experience feelings of not-really-being-here of depersonalisation, as if you were a detached observer of yourself. 

When I worked in the recovery from the Canterbury earthquakes, I emphasised the importance of messages and stories of hope to counter the effects of hyper and hypo-arousal. I also advocated for time spent building relationships with affected people and communities to ensure re-establishment of a sense of trust, and efforts toward building small islands of predictability in life to counter the effects of hyper-arousal and feelings of life being out of control.  

What now?

At present, attention is focused on preservation of life, and ensuring that basic support needs such as food, water, secure and safe accommodation, ongoing protection of physical health, and social connection. This is entirely appropriate and needed. But a multiple track approach that addresses deeper needs of returning to a more manageable window of tolerance for individuals and communities will be required, and soon.  

Build trust by continuing conversations about what happened and what happens next. Make things as predictable as possible in these wildly uncertain circumstances. Give people a sense of agency and control in these powerless circumstances. Help people who are over-aroused to see the world as a less dangerous place. Give those who are flat some hope for the future.

Repairing windows is going to be a critical task in the weeks, months and years ahead. 

(First published on my Substack here).

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