Welcome to the second part of my interview with Liz Stanley about her book, Widen the Window. You can find the first part here. Read on for the conclusion of the conversation Melody and I had with Liz, where we dug into career strategy, bias, stress, and trauma—learning how to change our brains, our behavior, and our ability to heal ourselves.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Relational Trauma and Maintaining Our Agency
Jennifer: I do career strategy with women and people of color. One of the things that I found helps build audacity is a sense of agency. When I read your book and started working with you, understanding agency from your perspective in the mind/body and in managing trauma—it just was so profound. So many of my clients, especially clients who are marginalized, need agency. A lot of times I work with people who think that because they can’t access their agency, they’re “not doing it right.”
You talk about poverty, sexism, racism, and other forms of hostility or bias, and how they lead to chronic stress. You also describe what’s happening in our bodies when we have “relational trauma.” So, I have two questions. Why is agency such a determining factor in our experience of trauma? Also, when you’re in the midst of that, how can accessing agency maybe be more challenging, and why is it necessary?
Liz: The less agency we perceive ourselves to have in any situation, the more likely we are to experience trauma during that situation. If we can access agency, we are going to be able to make choices that are going to be ethical and effective.
It’s so important that the last eight chapters [of my book] are entirely written and focused around training ourselves to access agency in a variety of different ways—at the micro level, in our bodies, with distressing thoughts or chronic pain, but also at a more macro level in our interactions with other people and our daily life choices. And certainly, in situations with sexism, racism, poverty.
Relational trauma is what it sounds like. It’s trauma that we’re experiencing in relation to someone else. It can happen in an abusive or emotionally abusive relationship. It might be a relationship built on patterns of addiction.
Relational trauma also happens during social exclusion, discrimination, harassment. And when relational trauma is experienced during childhood, clinicians and researchers call that developmental trauma—a form of relational trauma happening early in someone’s life, when it’s probably having even bigger effect on their neurobiology.
As a culture, we tend to write off these kinds of things as not that big a deal. We tend to think of trauma as only the really big things: rape, combat, natural disasters, a mass shooting. We agree those things are traumatic. Many Thinking Brains in our culture just write off or devalue these little-t traumas. But our Survival Brain is still feeling helpless, powerless, and lacking control. And that is what’s going to make it traumatic. We tend to discount [trauma’s] effect. But the problem is, we’re turning stress on and we’re not really aware that we’ve turned it on. We’re not recovering from it. We try and think our way out of it. Or try and positively reframe it. None of those things are helping our Survival Brains to recover.
Toxic Effects of Bias and Discrimination
As social animals, we’re wired to connect. In terms of things like discrimination, harassment, racism, sexism, heterosexism, or even poverty, we don’t have to actually be experiencing a discriminatory situation in the moment ourselves—we can still turn the stress on when remembering a time when we were discriminated against or harassed. Or when we are anticipating going into a situation where we might face biased or prejudiced people. It doesn’t have to be physically happening in this moment. If our Thinking Brain is remembering it or anticipating it, we’re still capable of turning stress on.
If we are reading or watching the news or social media feeds about someone else who is experiencing marginalization, we can experience stress arousal in resonance there. That’s how we’re wired as social animals. The 24-hour news cycle and our addictions to our devices creates the powerlessness of someone else experiencing it, but there’s also the powerlessness of having nowhere to get away from it. All that can leave the Survival Brain feeling helpless and compound relational trauma, even without experiencing it ourselves.
And yet, these are the situations we tend to write off the most as not a big deal. I have a chapter in the book where I look at both experimental and empirical research about this dynamic—the toxic effect of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and poverty on our minds and bodies. The big takeaway is that being chronically vigilant in anticipating bias or marginalization is just as stressful as actually experiencing.
“Every repeated experience matters. Therefore, whichever experiences we choose to repeat—either consciously or unconsciously—are changing our mind-body system. Armed with this understanding, we can choose to engage in consistent physical fitness and mind fitness training regimens, in order to intentionally rewire our brains and entire mind-body systems in a beneficial way.”
-Widen the Window by Elizabeth A. Stanley
The Comparison Mind
Jennifer: In the book, you talk about “the comparison mind.” One of the ways we don’t give ourselves time for recovery is by saying “my stress isn’t as bad as yours—you had something horrible happen, so I can’t complain.” What you’re saying is we have to take care of ourselves and stop comparing my stress versus your stress. Our bodies are experiencing stress and trauma, period.
Liz: That comparing mind is where we look at someone else and say, Oh, they have it so much worse than I do. Some people suggest [comparison] is a really helpful technique. In certain situations, it might be. But it is actually helping to recondition an adversarial relationship. It’s the Thinking Brain basically writing off, de-valuing, and dismissing what our Survival Brain is experiencing. We’re conditioned to compare our situation to other people’s. We look to other people who might be dealing with really big stressors and we think, “Well, if they’re coping with all of that, what I’m dealing with in my daily life is no big deal in comparison.” As a result, we devalue then what we’re experiencing.
This is a core piece of the adversarial relationship between them. So as much as possible, we need to acknowledge that, yes, this might not be as big a deal as combat; it’s still stressful, it’s still traumatic in our own minds and body, and we have to acknowledge that.
Why We Shouldn’t Multitask
Melody: You give another example of how our behavior contributes to this antagonistic relationship between our Thinking and Survival Brains. You’re showing us the ways our behaviors, choices, and our norms are actually contributing to making this a bad relationship between the two brains. People are going to be really disheartened to hear that multitasking isn’t just impossible, but it’s really bad for us—it contributes to this antagonistic relationship. So, tell us about how multitasking can be damaging.
Liz: Multitasking doesn’t really exist. We might subjectively feel like we’re multitasking, but what’s really going on is that we’re very rapidly switching between different tasks. We’re moving our attention, toggling it back and forth. When we do that, we have less skill and accuracy than if we’d stayed focused on one thing.
When we try to focus on one thing and not be our multitasking selves, [we can] feel bored or restless. We make this process seem more addictive because when we switch—when we pick up our phone and check our email or our social media feed—it actually gives us a small burst of dopamine, one of the neurotransmitters involved with reward and motivation. So, it feels really good and that is part of what makes it feel addictive.
Heavy multitaskers have trained their brains to seek out new information rather than drawing on information they already know, which may be more relevant or more valuable for their current activity. There’ve been several experimental and empirical studies with multitaskers versus non-multitaskers, heavy multitaskers versus low multitaskers, and they’ve shown how the heavy multitaskers are much more impulsive and sensation seeking. They’re constantly looking for new information.
This tends to make our Survival Brain even more hypersensitive to our environment and it can make our threat appraisal process more hyperreactive. And when that happens, it leaves the Survival Brain turning on stress and much more activated than it would be if it were just focused on just one thing at a time.
There’s a brain imaging study that showed the biological aspects of this playing out. Heavy multitaskers had less density in a brain region that’s very involved in impulse control and emotion regulation, called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This may help explain why heavy multitaskers tend to perform worse on cognitive control tasks like focused attention and working memory tasks. They also have more difficulties with emotion regulation and more impulsivity. So, we think, “Oh, it doesn’t really matter that we’re looking at our phone all the time.” But we are wiring our brains in ways that make this adversarial relationship worse.
Melody: It sounds like we’re damaging the Thinking Brain we value so much and rely on. It’s actually making it perform worse.
Liz: In these studies, everybody gives their subjective sense of what their performance is. Then they have the cognitive tasks that show their objective performances. It’s usually inverted. The heavy multitasker thinks they’re doing really well, but they’re performing much worse on the cognitive tasks than the people who are not multitaskers.
The Dysregulation of Overwork
Jennifer: The idea of being on email basically 24 hours a day as “working hard” has really compounded this idea of high achievement. Always being on, grit, working overtime—that’s being valued in our society. But it’s actually just “dysregulating.” You talk about this dysregulation in the book. Tell us why these behaviors that seem positive and are highly valued are harming us.
Liz: Dysregulation is the range of different symptoms we experience when we have built allostatic load. Remember, allostatic load is wear and tear on mind-body systems that happens when we turn on stress and never turn it off. Allostatic load shows up in imbalances or malfunctioning in all of the different systems in our body—our brain, nervous system, immune system, hormone system, endocrine system, organs, cardiovascular and respiratory system, in digestion, elimination, sexual functioning, our skin, fascia and muscle.
The kinds of symptoms you can get are wide ranging: cognitive symptoms, like memory problems or distractedness; emotional symptoms, like having constant anxiety, depression, mood swings, or irritability; spiritual symptoms, like meaninglessness, or survivor guilt; physiological symptoms, chronic pain, headaches; behavioral symptoms, like addictive behaviors—shopping, porn, substance abuse, acting out adrenaline seeking behaviors. All of these things are signs of dysregulation. In fact, the more extreme our behavior, the more likely it is that we are dysregulated. It’s one of the ways our system copes with all this excess energy that we’ve mobilized but not recovered from.
“In the meantime, our Survival Brains are still there in the background—feeding our addictions, wrecking our relationships with infidelity and workaholism, disordering our eating, fueling our over reliance on many substances, damaging our bodies through too much or not enough exercise, driving us to adrenaline-seeking or self-harming behaviors, and externalizing our unconscious pain onto the people around us through our violent, abusive, unethical, or transgressive behavior.”
-Widen the Window by Elizabeth A. Stanley
Three Patterns of Dysregulation
When we’re dysregulated, we tend towards three patterns. Interestingly, one of these patterns is associated culturally with high achieving ways of being in the world. Certain high stress environments reward that kind of sleep deprived, hard charging behavior. So, they tend to attract these adrenaline junkies. Dysregulation shows up with a pattern of stuck on high, where we have too much arousal of the sympathetic nervous system—these are the adrenalin junkies.
These are people who have a lot anxiety, they might show rage attacks or panic attacks. They often have insomnia. Their system is constantly going, and they hyperactively try to cope. They tend to be workaholics. These behaviors don’t allow for much recovery, because when we are relying heavily on exercise, caffeine, tobacco, or other kinds of artificial energy mobilization (even video games, glaring televisions, and lots of loud music), you can just feel how the Survival Brain is revving. Multitasking is on a milder end of the spectrum, but it’s revving the Survival Brain so that it is not getting a chance to recover.
The second pattern for dysregulation is stuck on low. We have too much of the parasympathetic response. We move towards depression, isolation, numbness, fatigue. You can end up with chronic fatigue, weight gain, social isolation, and responses on the freeze spectrum. They might feel kind of spacey, they might sleep a lot and still be tired.
The third way dysregulation shows up is oscillating between the other two. In our culture, most high achieving people spend a big chunk of their life in the stuck on high phase. But then they might crash with a cold or have a weekend where they’re completely catatonic. That’s the oscillation pattern. When we’re working in environments reward the hard charging, it’s a little chicken and egg. Is the dysregulation leading people to act that way or is this environment feeding the dysregulation? It becomes this vicious loop. And nowhere in that loop is recovery, so it’s gets worse over time.
Jennifer: It’s important to take a step back and think about how many listeners are in that hard charging environment and being marginalized and disenfranchised at the same time. You’ve got technology building an expectation that we work that way and to prove ourselves worthy while we do it. All this hard charging because they’re going to value you for doing all these things, right? Then you find you’re still not valued because of your sex, race, socioeconomic status. It’s important to point out that layering because we’ve also been comparing how much better we have it because we’ve got this job. So, we shouldn’t be complaining about all these stressors because we are so lucky. The dynamic is so complex and reading your book is so important because it’s not just unwinding one of these things in order to move into a place where your Survival Brain can recover.
Liz: I fully agree. I appreciate you highlighting how interconnected the complexity is and how you can’t just pick one of these threads. You need to understand all the pieces. Back to something we were talking about earlier—we have been trained, often by our mental health professionals, to focus on what we’re grateful for, see the positive, and acknowledge how privileged we are. Those are ways the Thinking Brain tries to gain perspective on the situation. I don’t want to write off gaining perspective, but none of that is truly getting at these layers of the powerlessness we might feel at the constant, low grade isolation, discrimination, or bias we’re facing. And it certainly isn’t getting at all the ways our coping mechanisms are causing our bodies and minds to spin faster and faster. Understanding how all of these things fit together helps us realize that we need to be using a range of strategies. We can’t just talk our way out of it by a reframing of the situation.
Staying Safe in a Hostile Environment
Jennifer: You’ve shared so much in your book, it’s so personal and transparent. You share a lot of vulnerability, especially with one anecdote in your book about how your dentist, in the middle of the procedure, sensed empathetically that you needed a break. The flip side of this is when we resonate with people’s hostility. Can you explain how people resonate with one another’s emotions and get activated by each other? And can you tell us how we might try and keep ourselves safe in hostile environments, and be aware of where we might actually thrive?
Liz: Our brain and nervous system get wired through our repeated interactions with other people in our social environment. Especially our early care providers. So, their windows affect our windows, our windows affect theirs. This interaction goes both ways and our Survival Brain and body picks up the stress, arousal, and emotions in others.
The last chapter of the book looks at these many neuro-biological mechanisms to clarify how stress and emotion contagion works. It involves the brain, body, hormones, even parts of the Thinking Brain. All of this helps us understand why we are resonating with other people.
We’re also resonating with our environment. Being in regulated environments can feel so soothing for us—like being in nature, which is a very regulated environment. Conversely, it’s why dysregulated environments are so activating for us. If we’re in contact with anxious or irritated people, it’s going to increase our own stress arousal. If we’re not being mindful of staying grounded, certain social environments are going to take a big toll. Being at a cocktail party where everyone’s being insecure and trying to talk to the most important person in the room, or sitting in a traffic jam, standing on the Metro platform when the train is delayed. All these are prime places where stress contagion can happen if we’re not paying attention.
Stress emotions are most contagious in our close attachment relationships—our romantic partners, parents, and kids. But, they’re also very contagious in relationships involving power differences such as with our teachers, our bosses, and our leaders. When our leaders are dysregulated, they are helping to spur dysregulation in their followers. If you’re in a hostile environment, that hostility can get absorbed if we’re not taking active measures to help our Survival Brain stay grounded.
Some things we can do when we are being met by hostility, aggression, indifference, blame, or sarcasm: the most important thing in that moment is to realize this is not about us. Don’t take it personally. This is about where their mind-body system is right now. They are activated. Chances are, they’re outside their window and it’s getting externalized onto you. As much as possible, try and remember that and not take it personally. We have to try and stay grounded.
What is the best thing we can do when we’re in those kinds of interactions? Direct our attention to our butt in the chair or our feet touching the floor. I know that sounds very strange, but if we’re actively noticing the support and contact of our environment—our chair, the floor—that is going to help the Survival Brain stay grounded and help it neurocept safety so that we’re not going to pick up the stress or emotion contagion. If their behavior is too activating, take a break and say, “I think we should try this conversation another time.”
This is not the time to try and reason with them. Their Thinking Brain can’t really take in what we’re saying anyway. And their Survival Brain is going to feel unheard, which actually makes them even more aggressive or hostile, more anxious. Their Survival Brain is going to perceive their message isn’t getting through, so they’re going to amp it up. If we can stay regulated and enter the conversation from a place of nonjudgmental curiosity, where we really want to understand what’s going on in their Survival Brain, that can actually help their Survival Brain calm down.
It’s also important to recognize stress or emotion contagion. What can I do now to help my Survival Brain feel safe and recover? Can I go be in nature for a while? Can I go for a run, and expend the stress hormone? Can I go soak in the tub and feel my body? Helping the Survival Brain get grounded again will start the recovery automatically. That’s what it’s wired to do when we’re not blocking it.
How We Can Begin to Widen the Window
Jennifer: The other day when I was having a bit of stress, I went down a checklist of making sure that I was in my body. It didn’t necessarily resolve the stress, but it removed me enough from the situation that I could gain another perspective and see the degree of agency I did or didn’t have to change. It was a sense of choice of whether I wanted to engage. What I experienced in doing those steps wasn’t that I was healed or that had solved this, but agency because I could choose what to do in particular moment and to respond to the stress I was feeling, not to the stressor.
So, our last question is, How should someone begin the work of widening their window. Should they seek professional mental health? As Melody asked earlier, is widening your window possible for everyone?
Liz: What you just said is the crux of why the most common ways to resolve stress don’t usually work. We tend to think of agency as trying to deal. So, we want to immediately problem solve and strategize. That kind of agency is important, it is not going to get recovery.
There is an agency for the Survival Brain, and then there’s agency for the Thinking Brain. You have to make sure the Survival Brain has agency first, or you’re not going to be able to effectively use Thinking Brain agency. There is a chapter later in the book where I explain the basics of the recovery process and why it works, why the Survival Brain does what it does, discharge activation and what that discharge looks like.
The next move is understanding that we can only pick a recovery, re-regulating function, or activity that starts with our Survival Brain’s truth in this moment. So often, people feel powerless with their attempts at recovery—trying to use a recovery tool that is wildly mismatched for their current stress arousal level.
“Neuroplasticity boils down to this: The repetition of any experience makes it easier to do—and harder not to do—again in the future. That’s why it can be so difficult to start a new habit, and why it takes several weeks of deliberate practice before we begin to see the new habit stick. And that’s why it’s so blasted difficult to stop an old habit—especially if that habit gets triggered when we’re stressed or dysregulated.” -Widen the Window by Elizabeth A. Stanley
I have a story at the beginning of Chapter 14 about one of my students who had a long history with anxiety and was in a situation where he was trying to use some of his cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, and they just weren’t working. And the more they didn’t work, the worse his anxiety got. As I talk about in that chapter, sometimes we are so activated, so far outside our window, have so many stress hormones coursing through us, the best immediate step is to go sweat, go do something that’s going to extend that energy. This is not the time to sit down and try and figure it out. This is the time to expend the energy. Go for a run, go hike stairs, whatever it is, and after you expend some of the energy, then we can work with the tools that help us to come back into balance.
There is a sequence there and everybody’s sequence is going to be different. This is another reason why I teach so much of the science. I want you to understand the science so that you can apply the principles in your unique situation. For me, when I’m super activated, I have to go out and run hills. But that doesn’t work for everybody. I want them to be able to personalize that.
When we start being able to do that, it shows our Survival Brain that yes, we can experience stress and we can recover. That is the core of the micro-level agency the Survival Brain needs. Lots of little experiences like that are now giving data to the Survival Brain: I am not always helpless. I am not always powerless. That is the core to agency for trauma.
Jennifer: I could talk about this all day, but we are coming to a close on our time. What I can wholeheartedly recommend is that people buy and read your book, and actually mark pages so they can come back when they’re actually in those stress and traumatic moments, and find out, “What’s going on in my body?” I really appreciate you taking the time, sharing your research, and your book, and your perspective. I think it’s the hope that we actually need in the world to feel that we have some capacity to manage ourselves.
Liz: Thank you both for making time to chat with me today and sharing this work with your audience. I really am a strong believer, that self-understanding is a doorway to agency. I would love this book to help people have that self-understanding.
And, the first exercise in the mind fitness training sequence of the MMFT Course is available as a downloadable audio exercise. It’s five minutes. It’s also in Chapter 12, and if you want the audio to go with it, you can join my mailing list on my website, and you will get that download.
There are also resources on my website for finding body-based trauma therapists. So, if you’re working with something that’s really difficult and want to find someone trained in ways to help your Survival Brain pace the recovery, there’s links to two different organizations with certified trainers and certified therapists. You just put in your zip code and you can find someone. So, hopefully those resources will be helpful in addition to the book. www.elizabeth-stanley.com.
“Learning to use our biology in a new way requires taking responsibility for our choices. Whatever we’re doing repeatedly has big effects on our mind-body systems. A fit mind and body not only have more capacity for thriving during stress, trauma, uncertainty, and change today—they also set the structural conditions for thriving well during stress, trauma, uncertainty, and change tomorrow.” -Widen the Window by Elizabeth A. Stanley
Listen to an excerpt and purchase your copy of Widen the Window here.