Learning to soothe attachment anxiety and the BIG emotions that come with it starts with first noticing when our emotions have 'taken over' and are now running the show.
When this happens, when we get taken over or hijacked by emotions, it often means we have moved out of our Window of Tolerance, or as one of my teachers Jane Clapp calls it, Window of Capacity. When we move out of this window, the ‘thinking’ part of our brain turns off, and our defensive behaviours take over, trying to keep us as safe as possible. It all happens unconsciously, which is why making it conscious (noticing) is so important. When we are in our Window of Capacity, we can manage stress and emotional arousal in a healthy way. We all move up and down in that window all day, you may be dealing with stress or pressure, but you are able to manage it. You stay regulated. This is an ideal place to be; when we are ‘in our window’, we feel safe and comfortable.
When the stress, or in the case of attachment theory, when our attachment distress is too great for us to manage, we get pushed out of our window, and our ‘lid gets flipped,’ meaning that our thinking brain turns off and our defensive behaviours take the lead to keep us safe. This is a really wonderful video by Dr. Dan Siegel, MD, originator of the Window of Tolerance concept. If you want to learn more about flipping your lid, please watch, this in itself is such a useful tool!
When you are pushed out of your Window of Capacity, you move into Hyperarousal or Hypoarousal and into those unconscious defensive behaviours. Without making it too complicated, it could look like this:
You may recognize some of these behaviours that take over when you’re outside your capacity to tolerate a situation. For example, I’m all about disconnecting from my own needs and people-pleasing when I feel attachment anxiety and need to be close to my loved one to feel calm again, although I’ve come a long way!
It's important also to remember these defensive behaviours are not 'bad', they are our body's way of keeping us safe. They got us this far and want to keep protecting us. The issue arises when we are using these behaviours based on past events and/or situations we are no longer in. Using self-soothing techniques is our way of telling the body that we are safe and that we have 'got this.'
Widening your window of capacity
When we talk about healing or coming a long way, we are talking about widening the Window of Capacity so that we can tolerate these stressful situations.
Trauma, like the trauma of abusive/toxic relationships, changes the brain and can make our window of capacity more narrow, meaning we can be pushed out of our window (or triggered) more often. The good news is that healing changes the brain too!
We can widen our window!!
And that's where soothing/regulation tools come in!
The more we practice regulation tools, the greater our capacity to tolerate distress and/or bring ourselves back into our window where our thinking brain can turn back on. Widening our window means we are in the drivers seat more often, not our emotions.
There are 3 ways to regulate our emotions:
Co-Regulate - Turning to others to regulate, talking things through, sitting with a friend
Auto-Regulate - Distracting behaviours like going for a walk, reading a book or too much Netflix, addictions, scrolling
Self-Regulate - I’m feeling feelings and sitting with them, tolerating them, learning from them. Using tools to regulate.
We need all three of these so that we have a wide variety tools in our toolbelt when it comes to regulation. But, as you may have guessed, people with Anxious Attachment tend to lean towards regulating with others, while people with Avoidant Attachment tend to need space to regulate.
So, if you are an Anxious Attacher, part of the work is adding in some self-regulation tools, like breathing techniques, journaling, or mindfulness.
Guided Meditation Tool
One way to know that you have moved out of your window is how you speak to yourself. When you are in your window, you tend to have a lot of compassion for yourself, even if you make some mistakes, as we all do. When we are pushed out of our window, our self-talk often becomes more negative or shame-y. So if you are saying pretty mean things to yourself, this is one clue that you have been pushed out of your window.
So, I will leave you with this Guided Mediation for Self-Compassion for times that you notice you are out of your window and need a quick tool to help you self-regulate.