Widen the Window | Elizabeth A. Stanley

Summary of: Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma
By: Elizabeth A. Stanley

Introduction

In ‘Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma’, Elizabeth A. Stanley explores how stress and trauma are interconnected and why they both significantly impact our lives. This book summary will delve deep into the complexities of the human brain and the role played by the ‘thinking brain’ and ‘survival brain.’ You’ll discover how our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), consisting of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS), regulates our response to stress and trauma and its ultimate effects on our mental and even physical health.

Understanding the Connection between Stress and Trauma

Stress and trauma are two interconnected issues. Stress is often considered a part of our daily lives but trauma is viewed as a severe and long-lasting condition. However, for our mind and body, both of them lie on the same spectrum. Our brain has two parts: the surface and the survival brain. The surface brain is responsible for higher cognitive functions while the survival brain controls basic survival functions such as breathing, sleeping, and hunger. It also regulates our response to stress. When the survival brain perceives a threat, it engages the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which turns on two branches: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). The SNS activates stress while the PSNS turns it off. Our mind-body system has three lines of defense. The first one is the social engagement system where we seek help from others, the second one is the fight-or-flight response where we prepare ourselves to survive, and the last line of defense is freeze, which is often associated with trauma. Freeze occurs when the survival brain perceives us to be truly helpless, and it can leave the stress of the trauma stored in our body and brain for a long time. It’s essential to understand the connection between stress and trauma and how they affect our body and mind.

The impact of stress on the body and brain

Your body’s stress-response system is designed to provide a quick burst of energy to help you deal with danger. However, after such heavy activation, your body and brain need to recover to a healthy baseline. Chronic stress and unresolved trauma can impede recovery, leading to dysregulation of the body and brain. When this happens, the body becomes permanently focused on short-term survival instead of long-term health. Dysregulation is common after trauma, as well as during times of chronic stress, such as when a person is under pressure, worried, or sleep-deprived. It’s important to note that the survival brain doesn’t differentiate between real physical threats and symbolic threats, making ongoing negative thoughts just as dysregulating as a traumatic event. Recovery is crucial for protecting the body from the many negative effects of dysregulation.

Dysregulation and Stress

Dysregulation, which manifests in two different ways, can be harmful to both our physical and mental health. Dysregulation occurs when our mind-body system is stuck in either high or low mode, leading to hyperactivity or exhaustion. This unsustainable pattern can lead to chronic stress and trauma, which can further cause various stress-related diseases. Additionally, dysregulation negatively impacts our cognitive performance, impairing our memory, analytical skills, and moral judgement. It is crucial to recognize these patterns and find ways to regulate stress to maintain a healthy mind and body.

The Benefits of Good Stress

Stress is a natural part of human life, and in moderate amounts, it can even enhance mental and physical performance. This is known as eustress, as explained by the Yerkes-Dodson curve. The curve illustrates that performance tends to be highest in the middle zone, where stress levels are moderate. However, our ability to handle stress varies from person to person, and the size of our window determines how much stress we can handle while still performing well. Chronic stress or trauma can narrow our window, making us more easily dysregulated. On the other hand, managing stress with unskillful coping tools can further narrow our window. As a result, many of us live outside of our windows, constantly in stress mode, leading to negative effects on our mental and physical health, job performance, and decision-making abilities. To break this cycle, we must first understand what determines the size of our window.

The Link between Stress, Trauma, and Biology

Biology plays an important role in determining our ability to handle and react to stress, and trauma can impact our genes, causing dysregulation and susceptibility to stress-related diseases. Childhood experiences, including early-life stress, can further affect the window of stress tolerance, leading to hormone imbalances and poor impulse control. Later life trauma can also have an impact, and accepting the size of our window is the first step in widening it.

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