On Maintaining Mental Stability
The true goal of psychological life could be said to be stability. Being mentally ‘well’ doesn’t mean we feel constantly excited or exuberant, but rather that we feel stable – that is, able to take things in our stride and to be neither weary nor fearful, bored nor manic. It’s unfortunate therefore how rarely we pay close attention to our levels of stability – allowing our moods to yoyo and veer, swinging between extremes. It is in this context that we might lean on one of the most useful and simple concepts in modern psychology, the idea of the window of tolerance.
Above the top line lies everything that feels overwhelming: this is where we slip into terror, hypervigilance, mania, guilt or shame. And below the bottom line lies everything that renders us uncomfortably numb: states of debilitating loneliness, boredom, deadness and alienation.
If we are fortunate, our moods will always remain within a harmonious window. But many of us are continually smashing through the mental window – without even necessarily being aware of the zigzagging involved. The morning might start well but by midday, something has triggered a breach and we are soon in a zone of high anxiety and self-persecution – which is then followed, a few hours later, by mute sensations of loneliness and despair. We feel tossed from one extreme to another.
Remaining within our window of tolerance is a skill – and, luckily, one that can be learnt. The first step is to get a picture of the window of tolerance in our minds and to develop the habit of looking at it constantly, much as a good pilot will keep their altitude indicator always in view. We should learn to determine at all points of the day what sort of direction our mood is heading in – and when we sense that we are on a slightly overly-aggressive trajectory towards the top or bottom borders, at the earliest moment, should take light aversive action, as though we were playing a particular kind of psychological video game.
For this manoeuvre, we need to start to notice everything in our life that threatens to send us out of the window of tolerance, and everything that we know can bring us back into it. We might realise, for example, that spending too much time on social media, seeing a particularly competitive acquaintance, or interacting with a certain colleague are all at risk of sending us beyond our window – and should therefore be undertaken only with the greatest care and in limited doses. At the same time, we should observe and cultivate everything with the power to bring us back into our window - like early bedtimes, long walks, light meals, or a conversation with a trusted kind friend who knows about suffering. We need to keep the dial on our emotional dashboard always in our sights – and do everything we can to stay artfully within its parameters.
Find out more about finding balance in our class on Calm.