When Your Insides Don't Match the Outside
Mindletter post written by Dr Kitty Wheater
Much-needed rain this week, and that cool freshness in the morning that says autumn is coming. If you're a student, enjoy the lingering restfulness of August days - and if you're staff, beavering away in advance of the semester, I'm with you. It'll be a good one.
This week, I write about an experience particular to nagging feelings on the one hand, and chronic and traumatic stress on the other. I hope you find it helpful.
When Your Insides Don’t Match the Outside
Sometimes we find ourselves in an interesting place: the sun is shining, the world outside is quiet and calm, we are fed and watered, work is ticking along as it should, life is relatively benign – and yet…and yet. Our insides are a tangle of thoughts and impulses and sensations leaping around in the solar plexus, as if a raccoon got into a bee-hive and hosted a puppy party with Calvin Harris and a guest appearance from a disdainful she-cat called Holly. (Shout-out to the noble beast Hope and I encounter every night in the garden at 3am.)
The vexation of this state can be high. ‘Nothing’s wrong,’ we say to ourselves, ‘so why do I feel like this?’ We run through everything in our lives that is really fine, according to every objective measure of good life and wellbeing, in an attempt to snap ourselves out of it; we self-distract from our inner state by shopping, drinking, or working; we lie glumly on the sofa, lurching into a depressive pit of ‘I don’t know how to fix this, so I will always feel this way.’ Many of us oscillate between all three, sinking further into the internal maelstrom until it becomes unbearable.
If this sounds familiar, chances are that one of two things is going on.
1. Something needs your attention
Our minds and bodies are very good at letting us know when there is something troubling us, that we may have pushed away. A difficult decision; a gut feeling about a project, relationship, or situation; a
hurt or wound that needs tending. We all do it. It is much easier to gloss over, to say ‘everything’s fine,’ to run through everything we should be grateful for in our heads – not with presence and openness, but with the itchy heels that signify that we’re running away from what’s here. Sometimes, we have run for so long that it is not immediately apparent to us what it is that we’re running from.
Here, we may need to do some gentle excavation. It begins with slowing down: grounding, and taking rest; making space and time, on walks or with a diary or with someone to support you; being willing to follow the breadcrumb trail that your mind and body have laid down for you, all the way back to the tender spot that needs holding. Feel the feelings, and give them room to breathe so that they can point you in the direction you might not, in your busyness, have had the space to see for yourself until now. Be prepared for things to feel a little harder at first, as what’s been pushed down comes up – fear; sadness; pain – and then relief, as it integrates, and the way forward makes itself known.
2. Your window of tolerance has narrowed
In his classic book The Developing Mind (1999), psychologist Daniel Siegal coined the term ‘window of tolerance’ to describe the nervous system state in which we can process stress, and various kinds of emotional stimulation, without tipping into agitation or numbness. Our window of tolerance is unique: some people need a lot of stimulation to feel well-regulated; others find themselves rapidly forced out of their window of tolerance by certain emotions. We all know the person who snaps in volcanic anger, or drops into despair at a glimpse of shame.
What’s less well known is that chronic stress and traumatic stress both narrow the window of tolerance. This is why we may, after burnout or an extreme event, find ourselves unable to tolerate things that we used to, even when our environment has stabilised. Long-term, even when life looks pretty good from the outside, the inside may still be an otherwise inexplicable raccoon party in a beehive, with Holly the disdainful cat letting you know precisely what she thinks of you.
Alongside the kind of reflective space and support I suggest above, particular mindfulness practices may be helpful here. Many mindfulness practices focus on interoception: the felt sense of body and breath. But with chronic and traumatic stress, the survival brain is geared to hyperfocus on sensations of difficulty: you may find your attention drawn, over and over again, to the sensations in your body that tell you all is not well: the lurching stomach, pulses in solar plexus, tension in jaw or throat.
My first suggested port of call is always grounding, and you can find practices for both basic and ‘deep’ grounding here. These begin to shift the attention to what’s exteroceptive, using sensations of touch. Touch is so useful because its sensations mark the boundaries of the body, the places where it’s held, contained and supported, away from the interoceptive sensations of gut, chest and throat that are more liable to distress. What I term ‘deep grounding’ uses gentle movements that accentuate touch, giving the nervous system a stronger signal for moments of particular agitation.
A second class of practices develops this further by directing the attention in explicitly exteroceptive ways. Sound and sight are particularly helpful: pausing regularly, sensing places of touch, and then tuning into the soundscape, reminds us that we are a body in space, rather than simply a big unbounded mass of difficult sensation. You might try this 24 minute Listening, Receptive Awareness practice by Tara Brach, or this 10 minute Mindfulness of Sounds and Thoughts practice from Mark Williams. Inside your room, office, or flat, you might regularly look up and around the room, and attune to particular colours – green, orange – to guide the attention into exteroception.
Finally, on a difficult day, you might step outside and walk, mindfully. So many of us, when we walk, are not really embodied; we are thinking, planning, worrying – and hyperfocusing on the bodily sensations of thinking, planning, and worrying. So try sensing the soles of your feet against the ground, and orienting to sights: plants, trees, architectural motifs, the colours of the fading summer, and fruiting autumn.
Experiment with short pauses and practices like these, noticing the impact on your mood, and setting aside time for something longer when you can. You might move between grounding practices, and exteroceptive ones, discovering what helps you in particular states of agitation or overwhelm.
Often in life, particularly post-Covid, both 1) and 2) are the case: things need our attention, and we are too chronically overwhelmed to meet them. If this is the case, focus first on grounding and stabilisation. Dip your toe in the water of investigation with short practices like the breathing space, and with good support, like from a trusted friend. Experiment, practice, repeat. Be kind to the raccoon, the bee-hive, and to Holly; it was always her garden before, and new things take a little time to metabolise. All will be well.
Warm wishes for a restful weekend,