Redeemer Counseling Newsletter

The Optimal Zone for Processing Experience

God has given the central nervous system the important task of sensing the presence of threat or danger, much like an “alarm system” for the body.  Some of our alarm systems are more sensitive to stimuli while others may have a larger bandwidth or tolerance. In the current time of COVID-19 and sheltering in place, hardships experienced in isolation can be a traumatic experience. Navigating physical and emotional boundaries in confined spaces can be overwhelming and exhausting. Moreover, the threat of the unknown, from how risky it is to go to the grocery store, to what will happen in the future, can feel constant. Our inclination to assess and reassess information can create unhelpful responses that are no longer appropriate to the level of actual intensity. As complex beings, our bodies and emotions are interrelated. How we process and respond to our environment and experiences shapes how we view ourselves, others and God, which can sometimes lead to feelings of shame that prompt negative thoughts such as, “I’m such a failure,” or “why can’t I do anything right?”

So it is helpful for people to process their experiences and make sense of them in a Christ-centered way. However, during times of high stress and crisis, people who we encounter may not be in an optimal zone of functioning where they can effectively process their experiences. They may be in a state of hyperarousal, in which the body is overreacting, such as with a racing heartbeat, or in a state of hypoarousal, in which the body is underacting and numbing emotions. When we can identify those reactions, then we can intervene to bring our system back to the optimal zone, called the Window of Tolerance, a state where our brains are able to take in information and integrate it in a helpful way to move us to a place of safety and clarity. This is an ideal space to work on processing, for yourself or when ministering to others. In I King 19, we see Elijah exhausted and fearful after defeating the prophets of Baal and having his life threatened by Jezebel, and God's angel ministers to him simply by providing a cake and a jar of water, telling him to "Arise and eat" (v.6).  This month’s tool presents the Window of Tolerance framework to help you assess and understand where someone is in their experience of a situation. The tool will also offer some ways to guide people back into an optimal zone of processing.



Hilary Chiu, LMFT