My hands followed the gliding fascia as muscular tension dissolved underneath them. I noticed my client’s breathing change, and an odd expression passed across his face.
He was feeling. And that was a problem.
A tall, stoic and very fit man, straight from central casting for the role of Powerful CEO, he’d asserted in our first session, a mere four weeks prior, that he does not feel emotions.
He actually said that. “I don’t feel.”
Well, okay, I thought. This should be interesting.
Now, I take a whole person approach to my work. That means that while I meet people wherever they’re at (you wanna keep it strictly biomechanical, no problem), I do track everything that’s happening during a session.
The muscular armoring broke loose in my client’s body, the tissue softened under my hands and I watched emotion happen. If you’re observant, you can see feelings move through someone’s body.
Emotions are embodied. We call them feelings because we feel them, you know, physically.
And while I hadn’t verbally cued this human toward feeling, it broke loose from his muscles and flooded his sensory channels.
I never saw him again.*
Sometimes emotion — specific ones or just any emotion at all — is too much for someone, as it was for this guy.
Every single person has a unique window of tolerance for emotional stimulus, described by Dr. Dan Siegel thusly:
“Each of us has a ‘window of tolerance’ in which various intensities of emotional arousal can be processed without disrupting the functioning of the system.”
Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind, pg 281
What this means is that there’s a range of stimulus within which you operate that’s optimal for your individual well being.
Some people have windows set very high in the range. The only time they feel comfortable is when they’re experiencing intense input which allows their nervous system to relax. Adrenaline junkies may fall into this category (though not necessarily — beware of stereotyping).
Some have wide windows with a lot of elasticity in their systems. They’re comfortable with a broad range of stimulus.
Yet others, like the gentleman in my practice, have extraordinarily narrow windows. Certain emotions, such as anger or sadness, may be outside their comfort zone. Or, like my client, any emotional stimulus at all sends them into hyper-arousal — a state where thinking and behavior become disrupted.
Basically, you’re operating in survival mode and no longer feel cool, calm, collected or in control.
While we all have our own internal windows, what I’ve noticed is that those who excel at empathy — frequently called highly sensitive people — feel not only their own emotions, but also those of everyone around them. Those extraneous emotions can push HSPs outside their windows of tolerance, too.
While I don’t have any actual data on this (yet), knowing how the brain develops and how we map the world from a somato-emotional standpoint when we’re quite young — preverbal, even — I’d venture to guess that our individual ranges of tolerance are shaped initially as children.
There are other factors as well. Life experiences that include physical and psychological injuries and trauma will, of course, influence your nervous system.
Emotions become overwhelming when they take you outside your window of tolerance, whether those emotions originate within your own system or are “borrowed” from the people around you.
Women seem to be particularly susceptible to the borrowed emotion overwhelm because we’re hardwired for compassion and empathy, and because we’re conditioned from childhood that girls are emotional while boys don’t cry.
Chronic emotional stimulus that pushes you outside your window of tolerance on a daily basis results in repeated activation of your stress response, disrupting a state identified by the HeartMath Institute as psychophysiological coherence – synchrony between your nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, hormonal and immune systems.
Repeatedly entering this state is like receiving little mini-traumas over and over again. Your husband comes home bitching about his job, and you feel his stress.
Boom, micro trauma.
The angry woman in the SUV veers across three lanes of thick traffic, narrowly missing your bumper and shouting obscenities at you (as though it were your fault) and again, stress response.
The fact is, humans are emotional creatures.
And emotions are really important for some processes, like decision making.
You’re not going to be able to eliminate feelings, not yours or anyone else’s. So how can you prevent all this overstimulation from becoming overwhelming and exhausting until you just want to move to the middle of nowhere, live in a yurt, raise goats and chickens and become a curmudgeonly hermit?
At present, I see two essential components to avoiding emotional burnout.
The first is to expand your window of tolerance. This is basically the equivalent of cultivating resilience in your nervous system.
When you repeatedly challenge your stress response with intentional and controlled situations and practice recovering, you build more elasticity into the edges of your window of tolerance, gradually stretching them wider until stimulus that used to be outside your window no longer triggers you.
You’re now able to maintain psychophysiological coherence with a wider range of emotional stimulus.
The second strategy is to practice compassion over empathy. Empathy causes you to literally feel the pain (or elation or lethargy or any other emotion) of another person. And when I say literally, I don’t mean figuratively.
I mean that fMRI scans show the parts of your brain lighting up when you empathize with the pain of another that would be implicated in your own suffering.
That’s a lot of intense emotion to handle, if you go around putting on everyone’s feelings like you’re playing dress up with their emotions.
Compassion, on the other hand, allows you to recognize their suffering (or elation, or so on) without engaging with it. This is a form of non-attachment. You can recognize that other people are in such and such a state, without buying into it yourself, and thus evade emotional whiplash.
So, when your husband comes home bitching about his job for the seven hundred millionth time, you can, very honestly, say, “I’m sorry you had such a stressful day. I’m going to enjoy my glass of wine on the lawn in the new Adirondack chair while basking in the evening sunlight now.”
Boom. Trauma avoided.
*I’d like to point out that it’s never my intention to flood someone with an overwhelming level of emotion. However, sometimes people aren’t ready for deep structural release, for whatever reason — it’s just not the right thing at that moment. And some people experience no emotional effects from this work whatsoever. Each human is an individual.