You're Probably Doing Self-Care Backwards
Updated: Apr 1
Way too often I hear the phrase “take care of yourself” said to someone after they’ve gotten stressed out. That’s all wrong. Self-care is supposed to come before the stress.
It’s time we started having a better understanding of self-care and why we’ve been thinking about it in the wrong order. To do that, we’re first going to have a conversation about being within your Window of Tolerance (WoT).
Every fiber of your brain and body is hardwired into your autonomic nervous system (ANS). It is the job of your ANS to respond to your environment by either speeding up or slowing down your energy levels, just like the accelerator and brakes in a car.
Throughout the day your energy levels rise and fall in response to what’s happening all around you and within you. Getting excited to meet up with your lover, accelerator. Feeling drained from a 12 hour shift, brake. Just saw a car crash, accelerator. Calm and content snuggling on the couch, brake.
What accelerates you? What hits your brakes?
In an ideal day your ANS keeps you in a balanced state between accelerating and braking. Your Ups and your Downs stay within what’s called your Window of Tolerance - check out the illustration below. This is going to be an oversimplified explanation, but it’s a good place to start.
Think of the middle dotted line as your neutral zone. The closer your energy levels are to that dotted line the more in control you feel. Everything above the dotted line is more energy. Everything below the dotted line is less energy.
Depending on whether you’re above or below the dotted line you’re able to be socially engaged, productive, relaxed, creative, and clear headed.
Whenever your energy levels get between the Green and Red lines you’re approaching your threshold for what’s tolerable. You’re still in control, but you’re probably feeling really anxious, short fused, foggy headed, and checked out - again, depending upon which side of the dotted line you’re on.
Now notice that there are times your energy levels go outside the red lines. If you’re outside the red and above the dotted line it’s because your ANS is overwhelmed. Your brain has engaged what’s called your sympathetic nervous system (SNS). It’s the SNS that kicks into gear when you’re feeling threatened. This is the Fight or Flight responses to danger you’ve probably heard about.
Something totally different happens when you’re outside your WoT and below the dotted line. This is when you begin to disassociate and enter into your Freeze response. A different part of your ANS called the Dorsal Vagus takes over and puts your body into a state of shutdown.
Both of these systems, the Sympathetic and the Dorsal Vagus, are part of our instinctual brain. We don’t have conscious control over them. When you’re faced with an overwhelming threat, your body kicks in these systems in order to try and protect you from either being hurt (Sympathetic/Fight/Flight), or feeling the hurt (Dorsal Vagus/Freeze/Shutdown).
Does it feel hard to determine where you are in your WoT? A skilled trauma therapist can help you learn about and re-engage with you nervous system in a safe way.
So here’s the part we don’t talk about.
The lines of your Window of Tolerance are Not Stagnant. Your WoT literally opens and closes depending upon lots of different factors throughout your day.
Take a look at the second graph. When your WoT closes, things become tougher to deal with. Notice that things that used to be well within what your system could tolerate are now overwhelming. The opposite could be said if you were in a place where your WoT was open wider than in the first graph.
The presence or absence of your Self-Care can push your WoT open or closed. (But nothing is ever so simple. There are always factors within and without of your control, and speaking to all of them would require a much longer article with a lot more examination of social and political forces that impact you on a daily basis.)
Stubbing your toe.
Scenario 1: If you’re able to plan out your morning routine so you get enough sleep, make yourself a yummy healthy breakfast, find time to hug from your loved one, made time for a long shower, and on your drive to work lucked out to hit a bunch of green lights, how might you respond if you stubbed your toe? How open would your WoT be?
Scenario 2: If you had nightmares all night, woke up late and groggy, had to skip breakfast, had a cold shower, got in a fight with your partner, and hit every red light on the way to work, how might you respond if you stubbed your toe? Would it be different than in the first example? How open would your WoT be?
All of the little things in the second scenario are Red Flags. These are all sometimes little, sometimes big things that push your WoT closed, making it 1) harder to deal with stressful things in life, and 2) keep you from enjoying the pleasurable things in life.
More than responding to stressful things after they happen, we need to think about Self-Care in terms of keeping your WoT open before the stress comes… before the missed opportunity to enjoy the moment comes.
All of the things in the first scenario are Green Flags. These things are examples of Self-Care, and they push your WoT open, allowing you to deal with the struggles and engage with the pleasures of life more fully. It’s easier to face life from a place of fullness than a place of scarcity.
When bad things happen and we’re already drained we just get drained even more - the impact is more severe. When bad things happen when we’re filled up we’re able to tolerate more and move on with our day.
When you learn to identify your Red-Flags and your Green-Flags you learn to have a better sense of where you are within your WoT. With that knowledge you get to make better choices around what steps you need to take to push your WoT open. You have a better sense of what your boundaries need to be in the moment, a better sense of what you’ll be able to manage the rest of the day, and how proactive you might need to be to open your WoT back up.
Always remember two things: Healing Is Possible, And It’s When We’re In Connection With Others That We Thrive.
Hudson Wilkins, MA, LPCC, EMDR, IFS. Hudson is a nature and mindfulness based trauma therapist inFort Collins, CO. He operates a private practice with a specialty in supporting folks who have experienced sexual violence first hand, and those that love them to heal and rebalance their lives.