Interoception, Resilience, and the Window of Tolerance
Here’s Part 3 of the Mind/Body Tools series — a little primer on my basic approach to working with musicians on mindfulness, nervous-system regulation, etc. In case you missed them, here are Part 1 (about self-compassion) and Part 2 (about tuning in to the felt sense of your internal experience.)
So, about this idea that there is information issuing from our internal experience that we can learn to sense, assess, and respond to — there’s actually a name for that: Interoception. Broadly defined, interoception refers to one’s sense (or perception) of internal signals, or signals issuing from inside the body. These signals can relate to a diverse array of stimuli including heartbeat, sensations of hunger or fullness, pain, emotion, activation or arousal, etc.
Last week’s post was about simply tuning in to the phenomenon of interoception and noticing that our bodies are telling us stuff all the time — stuff about about our mood, hunger, energy level, need to pee, emotional state, etc. Today we’ll explore how we can use this information as a catalyst for self-regulation.
window of tolerance
I use a Window of Tolerance model as a framework for understanding self-regulation. The term “Window of Tolerance” was coined by Dan Siegel (Siegel, 1999) to describe the zone of arousal in which we can handle stressors with relative ease and resilience. When we are operating within our window, it’s not that we don’t experience stress or elevated arousal but that, when we do, we have a feeling of “I’ve got this.” We are able to mobilize the energy and focus we need to complete the task or deal with the stressor in front of us — whether that’s giving a recital performance or simply working through a tough passage in a piece — and then quickly and smoothly return to a state of ease and equilibrium. Like this:
When we’re in our window, we can be exerting quite a lot of mental and physical effort but there is also a grounded quality to our experience and actions. That said, we not are too relaxed. Instead, our energy is balanced and responsive — able to move up or down as the situation requires.
When we move (or are pushed) out of our window of tolerance, we typically go one of two ways: towards hyper-arousal (aka flight-or-flight or sympathetic arousal) or towards hypo-arousal (aka lethargy, numbing out, or dissociation). Symptoms of hyper-arousal include anxiety, racing thoughts, fast heartbeat, aggression, etc. Symptoms of hypo-arousal include sleepiness, memory loss, flat affect (not feeling emotions), etc. In the the context of music practice, hyper-arousal might look like restlessness, frustration, or mindlessly practicing the same few bars over and over again. Hypo-arousal, on the other hand, might mean zoning out, boredom, sleepiness, inability to concentrate, etc. In performance, hyper-arousal might include shaking, inability to control the body, racing mind, and fast heartbeat, whereas hypo-arousal might present as lack of excitement or enthusiasm, inability to feel emotion, or lack of connection with the music, the audience, or fellow performers.
It can be interesting to consider our habits and behaviour through this lens. Some of us spend a lot of our lives comfortably in our window and have good strategies for getting back in when we’re out of it. (I am not one of those people…) Some of us get “stuck” in hyper- or hypo-arousal, remaining in a dysregulated state for long periods and sometimes even chronically, and some of us swing wildly between these two extremes, completely by-passing the more moderate ups and downs within the window. (I have been all of those people at various points…)
Here’s a helpful infographic:
Sensing, not thinking
What’s important to understand is that the experience of being inside or outside your window is an embodied one. It relies on an interoceptive appraisal of our internal state in the moment and not on a conceptual stance towards what we want to be happening or what we think should be happening. It can take some time to get a feel for the difference between these two modes of interacting with experience. Our culture — especially our education system — is set up to strongly favour the cognitive and conceptual over the somatic.
When I started exploring this in my own experience, I encountered some surprising information. I have always considered myself a very anxious (hyper-aroused) person and have invested a lot of time over the years playing with strategies to help me “relax.” The thing is, when I started tuning into my experience as a felt sense (rather than as a self-concept) I discovered that, in the face of a challenge, my system often (though not always) moves towards hypo-arousal. Before a performance, for example, I often get really sleepy. Routine administrative tasks provoke in me a very dramatic shut-down response. This was so interesting to learn because it helped me to realize that, when I am in a state of shut-down or paralysis, trying to relax isn’t particularly helpful. What is helpful is gently bringing a bit of energy into my system to help cultivate a stronger internal sense that I have the resources to do what I need to do. Fascinating stuff.
progress, not perfection
It might be tempting to think that “ideal” self-regulation would mean never going outside the window, but I don’t think that’s realistic — or desirable — for most humans. We don’t want to restrict ourselves to a range of experience that feels comfortable — especially as performers! But we do need ways to ground and regulate when our equilibrium has been disturbed, whether by choice or by chance. Instead, I would say that self-regulation has more to do with our ability to sense when we’re outside of our window and with our ability to get back in. Another term for this would be resilience. But, I’m going to say it again (and again and again and again in the next few posts): I’m talking here about self-regulation and resilience as felt or embodied experiences. I am not so interested in cultivating the thought or the belief that I can do something. Instead, I am interested in cultivating a felt sense — in my bones — of my capacity to meet a challenge and to modulate my energy as necessary.
As I’m writing, my own window of tolerance is suggesting that this might be enough to digest for now. There is lots more to say and explore, so I will write a follow-up post (or two…or several…) over the next few days with some ideas about how I think all this relates to practicing and performing music, as well as some strategies for getting back in your window when you find yourself outside of it. In future posts, we’ll also explore how to make your window bigger so you are not pushed out of it as easily. (Spoiler alert: This is where mindfulness comes in!)
For now, though, I’ll leave you with a couple of exercises that might provide a glimpse of what it feels like to operate within (or at least less far outside) your window of tolerance.
follow the bouncing ball
A ball is one of the best, cheapest, easiest to find pieces of equipment out there. Anything small-ish that bounces will do. Try this:
Try “dribbling” the ball with the palm of your hand. I like to start by dribbling one time — one bounce — and then catching the ball. Then two bounces, then catch. Then three, etc. Keep going until you feel comfortably challenged and then dribble the ball until it gets away from you. Then switch hands. If self-regulation is your goal, starting with something easy (one bounce) and working up to what feels like a manageable max is going to be more effective than just going in and trying to dribble the ball for as long as you can.
This one is fun too:
Here is a video I posted on Instagram a few weeks ago. In it, I am trying to co-ordinate the bouncing of the ball with the stomping of my feet. It’s tricky! But fun.
I do these kinds of thing often on my own as well as with groups of people. My experience has been that these sorts of games tend to bring people into their window. People report that doing something as simple as bouncing a ball causes them to have to pay attention. This, in turn, helps quiet thoughts down. Since the activity is physical, the heart rate elevates a bit, so people in a sleepy or hypo-aroused state experience a gentle waking up. When I scan a room full of people bouncing balls, I see looks of relaxed concentration and Mona Lisa smiles. Mostly…
But! Some people get really frustrated by exercises like this and find that they get pushed out of their window. If that’s you, no worries! We are all different and what is pleasantly enlivening for one person is often stressful for someone else.
Here’s something else to try:
This is deceptively simple but, for many people, extremely powerful. The best part is that you can do it anywhere, anytime and no one will even know. Here’s what you do:
When you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, stop and orient to your surroundings. You can do this in a number of ways: Look around and notice features of the space you’re in — objects, textures, colours, etc. You might look around and try to spot, say, 5 red things or 3 things that are yellow.
Some people prefer to orient through sensation. You can do this by sensing the contact of your feet on the floor or your bum and backs of your legs on a chair.
Whether orienting through sight or sensation, see if you can feel the movement of the breath in your body.
Anything available to the senses can serve as a touchstone: textures, colours, sounds, scents, etc. Experiment and see what provides the greatest sense of grounding for you.
The idea here is that orienting to the environment can help us disengage from unpleasant or over-active thoughts or sensations occurring internally. Getting just a little bit of distance from our internal experience can help us become less reactive and choose behaviours that are in line with our values and goals.
Just like with self-compassion and tuning in to the felt sense, this stuff requires practice. And it’s practice that provides tiny glimpses, not dramatic breakthroughs. But little shifts can add up to big changes over time.
I think that’s it for today. Stay tuned for more strategies and more thoughts on how this relates to our lives as musicians.
Siegel, Daniel J. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York: Guilford Press, 1999.
Podcast: Interoception, Contemplative Practice, and Health with Norm Farb This is a fantastic, meaty interview that is chock full of information and perspectives that I think are useful for musicians. If you really want to nerd out, you can check out Farb’s paper, on which this interview was based, here.