Contributing Author: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair
For the past several years, my office has been actively involved in a facilitated program we call Secondary Trauma Group. Each “wave” of participants learns the latest on the neurobiological effects of exposure to trauma and secondary trauma and then spends several months developing skills to neutralize the negative effects of work-stress and build resilience. Throughout the course, each person collects tools they find particularly useful. Of all the tools we discover, the most widely adopted and used is the Window of Tolerance, or WOT.
The Window of Tolerance
The window of tolerance, developed by Dan Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, represents our ability to notice our stress levels and then self-regulate. This window has three zones: Hyper-arousal, Optimal and Hypo-arousal and we tend to bounce between them as external circumstances — like trials and things — happen to us. Somatic tools — or body-based activities — can bring us from hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal into the present and closer to the optimal zone within the window. Like building muscle, with practice we can increase our ability to regulate our position within the “window.”
The Score Keeper
The world’s renowned trauma expert, Bessel Van der Kolk, MD, considered the pioneer of contemporary work in trauma, is credited with modernizing our understanding of how trauma (and stress) affects our bodies. In his acclaimed book, The Body Keeps the Score, Van der Kolk explains the profound negative effects of stress, anxiety, and trauma, and shows how the body is literally “keeping score” of our mismanagement of stress. He promotes processing and healing from trauma as the highest form of self-care, which contributes to longevity and helps us avoid many recurring pains, diseases, and ailments.
Van der Kolk teaches that the key to processing traumatic stress is noticing how it manifests physically and then physically engaging in activities that allow it to pass. For example, Van der Kolk recommends somatic exercises for people experiencing PTSD, like yoga, breathing, even bouncing a ball.
But first . . . micro-tracking in the body
A prerequisite to being able to adjust one’s position within the window is noticing when and where your unique physical body harbors stress. Some people feel acute stress or anxiety in their gut; others in the head; some in the middle of the chest; and others in the feet, legs, shoulders, etc. If you have not already located this place in your own body, now is a good time to get that going, through a process called micro-tracking.
Micro-tracking, sometimes called meta cognition, is the practice of being aware of and understanding how you think. It is the first step toward taking charge of how you think. We learned in Stress 101 that when the stress hormones — cortisol, adrenaline, and more — are activated, the reaction is physical. We hold and store stress inside our bodies. Micro-tracking is the process of observing the correlation between thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. This process uses the thinking brain to find the places where stress is lodging in the body.
The Hurt Locker
Lockers are used to keep unpleasant things — like smelly gym shoes and damp towels — out of view. Similarly, we often store unpleasant remnants of anxiety and trauma hidden from those on the outside. The Hurt Locker is a simple exercise designed to help us notice and map out the stress highway inside of our physical bodies. Next time you read a disturbing report, hear a shocking news account or listen to a co-worker tell a mildly upsetting story, track what is happening in your body. What do you notice? Describe the feeling. Where do you feel it? How intense is it? Do small movements or positional adjustments lessen it? How long does it last? Can you intentionally shorten the duration or lessen the intensity through somatic movement? If you are feeling courageous, try starting a conversation with colleagues, asking them to notice and describe the inside of their own hurt lockers.
We can never completely remove the stress and heartache from the prosecution equation, but we can learn tools to get us through those hard days. Figuring out how we individually process stress is one of the most important skills we can learn and truly constitutes the highest form of self-care.
Kirsten Pabst is the elected prosecutor in Missoula County, Montana, chairs NDAA’s Wellbeing Task Force, and is the author of Thriving Through Chaos — Survival Gear for Criminal Justice Professionals. She can be reached at email@example.com.