Elizabeth A Stanley is a distinguished professor, author, and veteran. She holds a PhD from Harvard and is an Associate Professor at Georgetown University. This September, she published Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma, already critically acclaimed as groundbreaking, pioneering, and profound.
A little over a year ago, I received a referral for a potential new client, Elizabeth A. Stanley, through a mutual acquaintance. Little did I know what her work would come to mean for me and my clients at Leverage to Lead.
Liz and I worked together on career strategy and building audacity, and over the course of helping her leverage her skills and create the freedom to write her book, I learned about what it means to widen the window. I learned about her research into the biology and social conditions of stress and trauma. I discovered how cultural norms, our choices, and our exposure to bias and discrimination can actually change our brains.
Widen the Window
Everything in Liz’s book resonated with my experiences as a professional woman of color, even with aspects of my childhood and education. And it illuminated many of my clients’ struggles, giving us a new vocabulary for internal and external forces that kept us stuck or afraid.
Today, I have the pleasure of sharing part one of an in-depth and wide-ranging interview with Liz about Widen the Window. Melody Gee and I spoke with Liz about what’s happening in our brains when we experience stress or trauma, how our mind and body need to work together to recover from the effects, how resilience is learned and practiced, and so much more.
I hope you enjoy this deep dive into how a legacy of stress and trauma can impact our resilience, and how we can train our minds to manage stress and trauma.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jennifer: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? What was the trajectory that led you to your current position and writing this book?
Liz: Thank you, Jennifer and Melody, for having me today. It is such a thrill and honor for me to be here too, and to share a little bit about my work and the book.
I am an Army brat. I moved 10 times before I went to college and spent a lot of time overseas. There’s been a Stanley in the US Army every generation since the Revolutionary War, so I come from a long warrior lineage. One of the saddest parts of a warrior lineage is often intergenerational trauma, and I come from that lineage too. Coming from that kind of a history really had effects on the way my mind and body were wired.
I experienced a fair amount of childhood adversity, some shock trauma events before I went to college. I did an ROTC scholarship at Yale, then went in the Army. I was in Germany and Korea and did two deployments in the Balkans. I had prolonged stress there as well. I had a near death experience while I was in Bosnia. By the time I left active duty, after a situation that led me to resign my commission, I had been sexually harassed and then faced command reprisal.
After all these things, I went to graduate school, doing two degrees at the same time at Harvard and MIT. And my system was just done. It had so much stress and trauma that had been accumulating without recovery for so many decades that I got to graduate school and my body was literally falling apart. I was diagnosed with PTSD and depression. I lost my eyesight—that was the peak of falling apart. And it sent me into a healing crisis. In some ways, this book is the completion of that phase of the healing journey.
I want to say that there’s nothing in this book and nothing that I teach that I haven’t actually been learning from in my own mind and body. I’ve grappled with it myself. In some ways, mine is the quintessential journey of any human who’s gone through prolonged stress and trauma. My window of tolerance to stress was wired in response to my early social environment. It narrowed through all of this stress and trauma without recovery. It narrowed further because I kept overriding my body’s needs and pushing.
“I lived for many years an awkward double-life: the outward appearance of success (as our society usually defines it) and the inner sense I was a failure, struggling secretly with symptoms and barely holding it together. As willful as I was, it would eventually take losing my eyesight and leaving a marriage to finally understand there’s an easier way. This book is about how I healed that division in myself—and how you can do the same.”
-Widen the Window by Elizabeth A. Stanley.
The Window of Tolerance
Jennifer: It sounds like how we cope is actually training us, maybe imperfectly, to cope with stress and trauma. And sometimes that training is reinjuring and exasperating those challenges because we are actively participating in how our body is reacting to and processing stress and trauma.
Liz: It is all conditioning on one level. For most of us, the conditioning began long before we even had conscious thoughts, when we were still in the womb. Most of this conditioning is very unconscious to us. And yet, it doesn’t matter whether the conditioning is conscious or unconscious, we are repeating it over and over again. We are continually training our mind and body to that way of being the world. It might have been adaptive at one point, and it just isn’t anymore. But it’s great to become conscious of it so we can choose something different.
Jennifer: Your book, Widen the Window, is about “the cultural norms that impede resilience in America, especially our collective tendency to disconnect stress from its consequences and override our need to recover…it explores how recovery and resilience can be learned.” Tell us briefly what our “window” is, and what it means to for us to learn to “widen the window.”
Liz: This is such a core concept that I picked it as the title. The window is the window of tolerance each of us has to be able to tolerate a certain amount of stress arousal. When we’re inside our window, our Thinking Brain and our Survival Brain (more on this below) can work together cooperatively as allies so we can access and take advantage of the information from our thoughts, our body sensations, our emotions. And we can use all of those things to make the most effective choice in the moment for what we need to do.
The wider our window, the easier it is for us to function effectively, both before and during stress and challenging events. And to recover afterward. Because we have an allied relationship inside the window, we can keep all of our deliberate reasoning and decision making online. And that’s where we can access choice. [Inside the window] is where our behavior is really intentional. This is also the place where we are best able to give and receive social supports during a challenge. And since we’re wired to connect, that’s a really important component. But, much of our culture has tended to write it off as not important.
People with wide windows are much more tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity. They’re much more flexible during challenging situations. They have a lot more flexibility with difficult people. They’re okay when their plans get interrupted, they can easily adapt and adjust. There’s an adaptability that comes from having a wide window.
There are very particular things we can do to train ourselves so that we recover completely from previous chronic stress and trauma. And in the process, we teach our minds and bodies to be able to tolerate more stress in the future. That’s what a wider window is.
I want everybody to understand that resilience is an active process, and we build it at a micro level in our minds and bodies through this repeated process of being outside our comfort zone and recovering. Each time we do that we are building this capacity to tolerate more stress in the future.
Melody: To clarify, is the window of tolerance a place we’re in all the time, or are we ever outside that window?
Liz: No, we’re not always in our window. Thank you for this clarification. Even people with super wide windows may experience something so threatening or so challenging that it takes them outside their window. Whenever we’re outside our window, we start having this adversarial relationship show up. We’re compartmentalizing and powering through and pushing (which is what I was doing). That’s called Thinking Brain Override, when the Survival Brain is hijacking things—we’re being impulsive, letting our emotions and our pains drive our behavior. That’s when we’re most likely to rely on the coping habits that might feel good in the short term but are actually not helping us recover. That’s when we self-medicate, we use adrenaline-seeking behavior or self-harming behavior or addictive behavior. All of those things happen when we’re outside our window.
Someone who has a narrowed window is going to be outside their window a lot more often. I don’t want to leave the impression that people with wide windows can’t sometimes end up outside their window. They can. They just have a lot more capacity to get back inside their window faster.
“I came to understand that many of my symptoms resulted from compartmentalized and denied experiences in my past. Because the truth of those experiences had been too overwhelming for my mind when they happened, I’d stored them outside awareness, in my body and in unconscious belief patterns that helped me cope. Only by bringing awareness back into my body could I finally recover and return to a healthy baseline.”
-Widen the Window by Elizabeth A. Stanley
The Thinking Brain and the Survival Brain
Jennifer: You write that there are different parts of ourselves, specifically the Thinking Brain, the Survival Brain, and even our Awareness. Can you explain the differences among these parts?
Liz: The Thinking Brain is the part of our brain that’s evolutionarily newest. It’s our deliberate decision making, our reasoning. It’s a very conscious thinking process. We know the Thinking Brain is active whenever we hear that running commentary in our head narrating and judging and thinking. All things verbal in our head—that’s our Thinking Brain being active.
The Survival Brain is evolutionarily older, and we share different parts of the Survival Brain functions with other mammals, reptiles, and fish. It’s the limbic system, the brainstem, the cerebellum. This is a very automatic, preconscious process, designed to help us rapidly appraise threats and either approach safety or opportunities, and stay away from danger.
The Survival Brain works through our stress arousal and our emotions. It’s not verbal. The way we know the Survival Brain is on is the effects in our body. Our heart rate might increase, we have butterflies in our stomach, we have a wave of anger. Those are ways the Survival Brain lets us know what’s going on there.
There are two really important functions for the Survival Brain in terms of stress and trauma. One of them is called neuroception. That’s the unconscious threat appraisal process happening all the time to check, “Is this a threat?” If the answer is yes, it turns on stress. If no, then we’re best capable to cooperate with other people. The other function that’s really important from the Survival Brain is recovery. The Survival Brain turns stress on and controls whether we turn stress off and recover after stress or trauma.
Awareness is actually much greater. It doesn’t belong to either the Thinking Brain or the Survival Brain. That’s why we can train our attention to be able to stand outside of and notice our thoughts, beliefs, stress arousal, emotions, physical sensations. Awareness can hold all of those things. When we can see those things, we can begin to interact with them differently and help support the body and mind in recovering and in functioning really effectively in any situation.
Recovering from Stress
Jennifer: A simplistic way for me to start thinking about this need for recovery from stress was lifting weights—the soreness and need for the muscle to recover in order to be able to take on more stress of lifting weights. Our culture doesn’t really take into account a need to recover from a stressful event as much as the need to continue to absorb more and more stress. That must really build the “adversarial relationship” between the Thinking Brain and the Survival Brain, which is not necessarily something we were born with. Can you tell us more about that?
Liz: This is not something that we are born with, it is something we are conditioned into through our early life experiences and through wider cultural norms. Like this strong value on grit and powering through and being able to suck it up and drive on. We really value persistence, and the sense that we’re making it on our own. Therefore, we want to push in that way.
We even see it in the gym, in the phrase “no pain no gain.” That’s an incomplete understanding because you can’t build new muscle or extend limits if you don’t have recovery time after being outside our comfort zone. Otherwise you’re going to end up injuring yourself. The same thing happens with stress.
Our educational experiences teach us to value our Thinking Brain. We don’t have a lot of training in our families or schools to focus on the important messages coming from stress and emotions. We push our bodies hard. We train ourselves in Thinking Brain Override: compartmentalization, suppressing emotions, suppressing physical pain, gritting it out, and sticking with it.
But the problem is when you give a whole lot of attention to Thinking Brain Override, consciously or unconsciously, you are not giving the Survival Brain the recovery it needs. So the Survival Brain starts sharing its messages sideways. And that’s when we end up with Survival Brain hijacking, where we have waves of anxiety and rumination, or we get very depressed, or our emotions and our pain are driving our reactive or impulsive choices, or we self-medicate our distress with food and caffeine and tobacco and other substances, alcohol. We start giving into cravings, we have less access to willpower.
Thinking Brain override and Survival Brain hijacking are just two sides of this adversarial relationship. We don’t pay attention to the fact that it’s the Survival Brain that controls recovery. So we’re constantly pushing and never able to fully recover because the Survival Brain never feels safe enough to turn the recovery functions on.
“Suck it up and drive on” was one of my core coping strategies, but there are many other strategies that may resonate more deeply with you, such as addictions, tobacco or substance abuse, disordered eating, extramarital affairs, adrenaline-seeking behavior, obsessive-compulsive behavior, self-harming, domestic violence or violent outbursts, isolation, dissociation, and extreme procrastination or paralysis.”
-Widen the Window by Elizabeth Stanley
Melody: Our bodies naturally recover from something like a strenuous workout, without our thinking about it. Is our Survival Brain recovery from stress or trauma similar, in that it just happens naturally?
Liz: It is instinctively wired to recover. It is an automatic process. As soon as the Survival Brain does a neuroception and perceives it is not in danger, it will naturally turn on recovery. The problem is many of us override that process because we don’t give the Survival Brain the time it needs to actually neurocept safety, because we’re constantly pushing and going. We turn stress on but we are not supporting recovery.
I wrote the book to help all the Thinking Brains in the world understand how much they are impeding the recovery process that we’re naturally wired to do. We’ve conditioned ourselves to override recovery. As a result, we stay more and more dysregulated.
Because we so identify with our Thinking Brain, because we hear that running commentary, and because we spend at least 12 years in school training our Thinking Brains, we tend to think that our Thinking Brain is going to be able to take care of the stress and trauma. And in fact, many of mental health techniques are very Thinking Brain dominant. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a Thinking Brain dominant technique. So are goal setting, visualizations, positive refraining, and cognitive reappraisal.
But recovery is a Survival Brain job. So those things may help, but they’re incomplete. They’re not necessarily setting the stage for the Survival Brain to feel safe enough for recovery to happen. So, people might be seeking help, but the help is just not getting them what they need. That was certainly my own experience. I did a lot of therapy before I finally started accessing those techniques and tools that would help my Survival Brain recover.
We Can’t Just Think Our Way to Recovery
Jennifer: I believed that I could think my way out of stress. That was one of the main reasons reading the book was such a light bulb moment. Strategic thinking and understanding are huge parts of managing what’s going on. But I have to actually give my Survival Brain and my body the capacity to recover in order to even think clearly.
Liz: If we’re outside our window, we can still think. But often, our thinking is degraded—it’s biased, often by negativity. So, we’re not actually doing the best possible strategizing anyway. But we’re so conditioned to think our way out of it. We can’t. It’s just not how we’re wired. When we begin to understand that about ourselves, we can sequence the tools in ways that are most successful.
What is Stress, Really?
Jennifer: Our common understanding of stress is a set of challenges, or an environment of pressure, or a feeling—that stress is something negative happening to us. But you define stress as an act of “mobilizing energy.” Help us get clear on that definition and why that definition matters?
Liz: We tend to think of stress as the thing that’s causing us discomfort. The traffic, the nasty boss, the deadline, the loss of a loved one. Those things are actually stressors. The actual stress response is an internal response that each of us has whenever our Survival Brain neurocepts danger, whenever it perceives threat or challenge and turns on stress arousal. That is the stress.
And it is actually mobilizing energy in two forms. It is doing everything it can to get our body the most oxygen and the most glucose access possible because we need to move our bodies, and we need to have brain focus, and oxygen and glucose help us with those things. Different stress hormones do a variety of tasks with different body systems to move us into that stance.
For me, it was really helpful to realize that this process evolved back in the Stone Age and was optimized to respond to the saber-toothed tiger, to get away to safety. So, all this energy is mobilized to move our bodies fast. That is still what we’re turning on today, even though we’re not seeing saber toothed tigers.
We don’t need all the energy we mobilize if we’re sitting irritated in a traffic jam or if we just had a really devastating email come across our inbox. But we’ve turned all this energy on. We’ve mobilized all these hormones, we’ve turned off other functions. And unless we’re conscious of this and then help the Survival Brain to feel safe again afterwards, we’re sitting in this stew of mobilized energy and stress hormones.
And that’s what I mean when I say we turn the system on and never turn it off. Stress was designed to be this very quick process, and then recover. But if we turn it on and don’t turn it off, we’re building wear and tear on our systems. All that wear and tear, in the scientific literature, is called allostatic load. You can think of it as stress load. We’re building all of this wear and tear that, over time, begins to show up as symptoms.
“We tend to consider “being stressed” to be a badge of honor—the evidence that we’re successful and accomplished…We collectively engage in societal-wide mixed messaging: while we profess that health, relationships, families, communities, and “work-life balance” are important, we simultaneously reward and admire people for engaging in imbalanced behavior.”
-Widen the Window by Elizabeth A. Stanley
Getting Away from Self-Judgment and Shame
Jennifer: It’s revolutionary way of thinking about stress, how it’s impacting our bodies, the damage it’s doing. When I read this and the other heavily scientific chapters, I wondered why you went deep into the science of our mind-body system, and why you emphasized the science behind the window.
Liz: I know that there are some science heavy chapters. But when I was first trying to widen my own window, my own Thinking Brain found it incredibly helpful to understand why my mind and body were behaving the way they were. Why I had the diseases I’ve had, why I responded in certain ways and certain situations. And it was liberating for me to realize that much of this neurobiological wiring has not been under my control.
Understanding that helped me take the whole process much less personally. Most importantly, it helped me loosen all of the self-judgment and shame I had around what was going on. It was revolutionary to me to understand how much of this came from early childhood, how it set up this lifelong trajectory, how it was happening unconsciously. I wanted my readers to have the same understanding so that when they’re going through their own recovery process, they’re going to be less likely to beat themselves up, less likely to be ashamed about their particular coping habits or choices that they were embarrassed about or regret.
We can’t think our way into recovery. We can’t think our way into fixing this. Having our Thinking Brain understand that can help us get out of our own way. Understanding the science is one of the best ways for a Thinking Brain to have the context to be willing to make some of the choices to move toward the wider window.
Jennifer: As with stress, your definition of trauma makes us rethink our default definition of some external harm. Tell us about how trauma is partly an internal response, and how trauma and stress actually exist on the same continuum.
Liz: Trauma, just like stress, is an internal response. But not all stress is traumatic. We experience traumatic stress when, during a stressful experience, our Survival Brain perceives us to be helpless, powerless, or lacking control. Those are the really important concepts here: helpless, powerless, or lacking control. When our Survival Brain perceives us that way during a stressful event, we’re going to experience trauma.
It’s especially likely to happen if the current event is similar to, cues or triggers a previous event we experienced. When that happens, the Survival Brain turns on default programming from the unresolved prior trauma. It’s the most adversarial relationship possible between Thinking Brain and Survival Brain. (I have a chapter that explains why the Survival Brain does this and how we get out of it, how we can do trauma extinction.)
“89% of adults in the United States report having experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives, with most adults reporting exposure to multiple traumatic events. Of course, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop trauma. Between 4-6% of men and 10-13% of women in the United States develop PTSD at least once in their lives.”
-Widen the Window by Elizabeth A. Stanley
Trauma is a situation where we feel helpless and powerless and lacking control, we have almost no capacity to access choice. And that exacerbates it, because without agency, we can’t get out of feeling helpless and powerless and lacking control.
Clinicians and researchers tend to focus on just one part of the continuum. Stress researchers and trauma researchers are publishing in different journals, they’re going into different conferences, they’re kind of talking past each other. So, we tend to think they’re not the same. But they’re on a continuum, and there is a set of tools that work for all of them.
One of the things that makes trauma so intractable is the adversarial relationship between Thinking Brain and Survival Brain is so intense. Many people who have been traumatized have never recovered from it. Then they have traumatic default programming that keeps getting turned on. That Survival Brain is living in the past because it hasn’t had a chance to recover.
Understanding the science can point to a set of tools we can use for both stress and trauma. It was liberating for me to realize that as I’m using tools to recover from my everyday stress, I’m actually helping to set the mind-body conditions so that when there’s trauma, recovery is going to be easier because my system is going to have learned how to work in an allied way.
Melody: We tend to separate stress and trauma by degrees of severity. We think you can recover from stress by yourself, but you need professional help to recover from trauma. But is trauma recovery actually something your Survival Brain will do automatically and instinctually?
Liz: That’s a great question. Because we have innate within us the capacity for recovery, it is possible to do recovery from stress and trauma by ourselves.
However, a caveat: people who have experienced a lot of trauma have deeply wired conditioning for an adversarial relationship. Therefore, it can be extra challenging to access awareness and help the Survival Brain feel safe and stable, which is when recovery happens. For that reason, many people find it helpful and maybe more efficient for a time to recover with the assistance of a professional.
But we have the capacity within us. All it takes is understanding what’s involved for trauma extinction, understanding how the Survival Brain gets caught with unresolved memory capsules that can get triggered and can lead to arousal. Then, understanding where and how to direct our attention so that the Survival Brain can feel safe enough for recovery.
I explain this in the book, and also say that if as you are using some of these techniques and you are noticing stress arousal or emotional arousal or an increase in your symptoms that is distressing, then it’s way, way better to be working with someone. This bottom up processing is not a linear thing. And it can be really helpful to be working with especially a clinician who’s trained in body-based trauma techniques that really help to target the Survival Brain’s recovery process.
In my next article, I’ll share Part 2 of our interview, where Liz digs into the relational stress and trauma of bias and discrimination, the damage of comparing our stress to others’, how multi-tasking creates an antagonistic relationship between the Survival Brain and Thinking Brain, and how we can actually rewire our brains, build resilience, and widen our windows.
Listen to an excerpt and purchase your copy of Widen the Window here.