Oct 28, 2023

Widen the Window Book Summary

Widen the Window Book Summary

Widen the Window Book Summary

Nathan King

Your skillfulness at managing your own stress directly reflects your leadership ability. With that baseline of knowledge, I set out to read Widen the Window to better understand the neurobiology of stress and what it would mean to have “skills” to manage it. 

The title of the book is a metaphor for how much stress a person can accept and still maintain clarity of mind, focus, and a sense of calm. Beyond a certain point, our ability to function well begins to deteriorate. The range of stress tolerance is the "window" the author, Elizabeth A. Stanley, refers to. The book is based on the premise that the stressful events each of us have faced, combined with how we've handled them, results in this window growing more narrow or more wide.

Stress can push a leader towards angry and shaming behaviors, or to a withdrawn, passive state that communicates powerlessness and apathy. These behaviors commonly result in a workplace environment consisting of gossip, indecision, or conflict avoidance. 

Effectively, your stress is contagious. It doesn’t matter if you have a great bonus program or clearly defined policies that govern the business. Poor stress management skills by you or other leaders on the team will limit the effectiveness of the team.

Widen the Window explains the physiology and neurology of how stress works, and provides skill-building steps to master your own stress and increase clarity, curiosity, creativity, and the ability to make empowered choices. It’s not a leadership book, but a useful companion to the leader who seeks to maximize her effectiveness. 

In this summary, I will highlight the main concepts, offer a substantial criticism, and describe the two practices the author recommends that can make a difference.

Widen the Window Describes How Stress Works: the Stress-Recovery Loop

There is no avoiding stress. Stressor events can be a deadline for a sales meeting or a traumatic accident. Particularly stressful are events that are “novel, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and threatening to our ego, our sense of identity, or the survival of our mind-body system.” In any office environment, there are plenty of such experiences. 

The key question is: how well will we recover? Collectively, our chief complaint about stress is the failure to recover, resulting in the common comment: “I’m stressed out.” 

It’s not the level of threat of a stressor event that makes us feel “stressed out,” it’s the absence of recovery. When we haven’t recovered from the initial stress event, the next stress event makes us even more stressed. I’ve attempted to visualize this process here:

In her work with combat veterans, Stanley’s stress training helped soldiers who had experienced violent, near-death experiences recover completely from the stress. 

If soldiers can recover from the trauma of combat, surely I can recover from the stress of an overflowing inbox or machiavellian office politics. We are wired to recover from stress. 

There is a disconnect between our unconscious need for recovery and our conscious choices about recovery. Stanley explains this as the hard-wired, subconscious part of the brain’s inability to communicate verbally with the logical, conscious part of the brain.

In other words, a stressful event causes our subconscious to demand recovery, but our conscious brain doesn’t clearly understand exactly what is needed, and our choices don’t fully reflect a healthy response. We often choose unhealthy recovery efforts, self-medicating with one or more of the following: 

  • Alcohol

  • Food

  • TV binging

  • Procrastination 

  • Trying to control others in our sphere (unfortunately there are dozens more examples).

What actually causes a healthy recovery can take many forms, some of the most prominent being:

  • Prayer

  • Meditation 

  • Exercise, etc

No matter how severe a stressor event is, your ability to recover from the event is fully connected to how your mind will interpret the next stressor event.

The Impact of Not Recovering from Our Stress

When we don’t “deactivate” our stress, stress accumulates (“allostatic load”). Eventually, this causes dysregulation, which means experiencing the effects of stress long after a stressful event has passed through mental and physical symptoms, which include: 

  • Emotional - irritability, apathy, anger, rage attacks, withdrawal, inadequacy

  • Physical - irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension, migraines, allergies, ulcers

  • Spiritual - black and white thinking, meaninglessness, crippling doubt

  • Cognitive - like a degraded memory

  • Behavioral - alcoholism, eating disorder, procrastination, clumsiness, pull towards action movies or violent movies (news?)

When we are mildly stressed (or activated), we make better choices to deactivate the stress. Stanley illustrates the range of options in a simple continuum (figure 14.1 in the book):

Dysregulation can result in getting stuck in a specific mode:

Hyperarousal - characterized by constant email checking, or simmering (and boiling over) anger, constant distraction, etc.

Hypoarousal - characterized by learned helplessness, apathy, overwhelm, and procrastination.

We can also habitually experience either of the following extremes:

Mental “Hijacking”

This occurs when our level of stress biases our perceptions. A common outcome is when we consistently blame others or ourselves for situations that don’t work the way we want them to. 

Thinking Brain Override

When this happens, we crowd out the sensations of stress that we experience. We live in our heads, disconnected from what we experience in our body. Symptoms include the idea that we have to suck it up and keep going, or denial.

The Biology of Stress

Stress impacts us physically as well as mentally. Stanley opens the book with her own story of vomiting on her keyboard while working on her PhD dissertation. It was the product of her stress. It happened multiple times before she realized, maybe not everyone does this - could my body be telling me something? 

Before we experience an emotion, we physically feel sensations. That feeling in your gut, that tension in your neck, the spingling in your spine, all tied to specific experiences in your life, are the signals that your brain uses to make sense of the actions it needs to take. These sensations, and the resulting emotion, are inseparable from living a whole life. However, it is possible to become disconnected from them and not listen to what is going on. 

Stress always includes physical symptoms. Here are the most common ones (image from page 407 of the book):

We need to cultivate what she describes as Neuroception, a form of perception centered on tuning in to physical sensations. 

Neuroception is a subconscious process where the autonomic nervous system continuously evaluates everything for threats to determine who is safe and who isn't. Because it is subconscious we feel it more in our body and less in our minds. But then our minds simply choose to reject or not whoever is involved. 

The Importance of “Agency”

Stanley advocates for a shift in how we interact with stressors, encouraging a stance of empowerment and agency. She points out that no matter how dire our circumstances, we always have power over how we respond. When we perceive ourselves as powerless, stress can overwhelm us.

A subconscious part of ourselves again complicates our ability to remain healthy. It’s incredibly easy to feel stuck, or that a situation is out of our control, which ramps up the stress response. 

Maintaining a sense of agency requires clear intentions, consistent practice of self-awareness skills, and deliberate life choices.

The Role of Childhood Experiences on the Stress Response

Each of us receives and experiences stressful events in different ways. Stanley describes attachment theory as crucial to understanding our own ability to deal with stress.

In short, humans are born with wiring for connection. The degree to which early caregivers established a sense of security and safety with you at birth influences our ability to recover from stressful events as we age. With insecure attachment style, a person is wired with a narrower winder and operates on a subconscious level that the world is not safe. Consequently, an event that is mildly stressful for a securely attached individual can be experienced as extreme stress by an individual with an insecure attachment. There are 3 primary styles of attachment.

Secure Attachment: ~60% of adults have this style, which indicates as children they learned agency, that they can control how they feel inside and influence others around them. 

Insecure-Avoidant: ~25% of adults have this style. These individuals tend to show little interest in physical or emotional connection. This is because one or both parents did not establish connection well. These individuals tend to experience a disconnect between internal experience and outward behavior. They have low awareness of their own needs and think they can do it all on their own.

Insecure-Anxious: These individuals picked up significant stress from their caregiver(s). This could be from a chronically stressed parent, who shows unpredictable emotions. Adults in this category tend to always seek more relationally. They tend to have mood swings, get stressed more easily. They fear abandonment.

Criticism of the Science in Widen the Window

Stanley’s book incorporates a wide range of research and clearly describes a scientific basis to support her approach, but she relies heavily on the triune brain theory and polyvagal theory, both of which are flatly wrong. 

According to the triune brain theory, there are three core structures of the human brain through which humans interpret reality. Each is a product of evolution: the reptilian brain, which includes the amygdala (the source of immediate, subconscious responses to help us survive), the limbic system, which contains the origin of emotion, and the neocortex, which is the source of logic. All animals, according to the theory, possess the amygdala, and through evolution, mammals added the limbic system. Humans added the crowning structure of the neocortex. But that doesn’t at all describe how the brain works. Here is a deeper discussion of the inaccuracy of triune brain theory.

Polyvagal theory is built on the triune brain theory. It helpfully points out the role of the vagus nerve in the use of emotion (true), but incorrectly claims that emotions arise in the body and that these emotions directly, through the nerve, effect biological processes, such as heartrate. 

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett provides a more up to date primer on the science of the brain. You will note that I didn’t explicitly say a more accurate primer. I’m convinced that we still know so little about the brain that we should reserve firm convictions about its functioning.

These theories amount to a creation myth of humanity. It’s unfortunate because it plants a seed of doubt of the other findings she reports on, and with such a thoroughly researched book, there are many subjects that she reports on. Why she chose to damage her credibility (critiques of these theories have been available for over 20 years) by not acknowledging conflicting science is an “own goal.”

Coping with Stress and Recovery from Chronic Stress

Despite the reliance on incorrect theories, from both experience and other available brain research, it does appear that the connection of physiology and our mental state is well-established, and that deactivating stress requires focused attention and committed practice. 

Where Stanley’s research has support is in the findings of applying her techniques to soldiers returning from or preparing to enter combat. And my own self experimentation demonstrates that the techniques are effective. 

Stanley recommends using a Mind Fitness Practice in your life to manage stress. She has developed a training, which the book doesn’t cover, that is more elaborate. It is called MMFT. 

She cautions that using these exercises can be disruptive for people experiencing chronic or extreme stress, and don’t replace therapy. She further recommends incorporating professional help from a somatic or psychiatric therapist and emphasizes that these exercises shouldn’t substitute for therapy.

Contact Points Exercise

This exercise develops your ability to control your attention. Ideally, it should be done for 15 minutes. If you don’t have the habit, you won’t have the stamina to focus that long. Start with 5 minutes instead.

  1. Sit down in a quiet spot alone, preferably back against a wall

  2. Sit with spine straight

  3. Bring attention to physical sensations of tightness, and note where these physical sensations are in the body.

  4. Pay attention to the physical sensations between your body and external surfaces to your body: this is easiest to do in any of the three below.

    1. Where your feet touch the floor.

    2. Where your butt touches the chair.

    3. Where your hands touch your legs, or each other.

  5. Choose a contact point and focus your attention on the felt sense for the duration of the experience.

  6. When your mind wanders, gently, without judgment, bring it back to the contact point.

The Ground and Release Exercise

This exercise pairs with the Contact Points exercise. The first 5 points generally match the Contact Points exercise. I found this exercise to be very similar to the Focusing mindfulness exercise, which I’ve benefited from practicing

  1. When experiencing mild to moderate stress, sit down in a quiet spot alone, preferably back against a wall

  2. Sit with spine straight

  3. Bring attention to symptoms of stress, and note what related physical sensations are in the body. For me, the most common ones are:

    1. Feeling shame

    2. Feeling overwhelm

    3. Tightness in chest

    4. Racing/anxious/ruminating thoughts

  4. Notice that you are activated. In your mind, say it to yourself

  5. Find a place in your body where you feel the most stable or solid, and fix attention there. This is usually the contact points.

  6. Aim for the felt sense of that spot.

  7. Attention may go back to the source of stress or symptoms of stress, keep redirecting to contact points.

  8. Keep redirecting until you feel more relaxed or settled, or until you notice an indicator of release. For me, most commonly:

    1. Deeper breathing

    2. Flushed skin, sweating 

    3. Sighing

  9. If no notice of release, open eyes and look around, name to yourself what you are seeing 

Stop after a single cycle of release. 

If it doesn’t work, then it’s likely you’re outside the window, and cardio is best bet. Try the exercise again during the cooldown period of that exercise.

Get in “Mental Shape” to Develop Stamina: 4 Weeks of a Mental Fitness Schedule

The above exercises are based on:

  •  Mindfulness training

  • Body-based trauma therapies

  • Sensorimotor psychotherapy

  • Somatic experiencing

  • Trauma Resilience Model

Week 1: 

Do the Contact Points exercise for 5 minutes, 2 or 3 times a day.

Week 2:

Do the Contact Points exercise for 8-10 minutes, 2 times per day.

Week 3:

More Contact Points. Extend to 10-15 minutes, 2 times per day.

When you notice you experience mild stress, try a Ground and Release exercise. 

Week 4:

Contact Points. 15 minutes, twice a day.

Use the Ground and Release exercise when experiencing stress.

Consider other meditative practices to add in: a walk in nature, breathing exercises (I’ll have more to say about this in the future).




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