Hey, fellow anxious and depressive folks! Yeah, you. I’m talking to you. Don’t avoid me like you’re currently ignoring your friend’s email about Maureen’s surprise birthday dinner or that work project that makes your chest clench just thinking about it.
You know the drill. An anxious or depressive time = missed appointments, ignored texts, ditched plans. Then following an anxious or depressive time, upon coming up for air from under the covers of avoidance, there’s the apology tour.
“Sorry, I somehow missed this text!”
“Sorry, I was exhausted last night.”
“Sorry, totally forgot I had an appointment.”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry.”
Enough. With assistance from Jess Doughty, a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor based in Wayzata, Minnesota, let’s momentarily hop off the tour bus so we can understand what’s happening and why so we can find a middle ground: respecting your body’s need for a break without alienating relationships.
Step 1: Be aware of your window of tolerance.
Use the window of tolerance as a way to understand what emotions you’re feeling and your ability to regulate them. What is it, exactly? Think of it this way: Whenever you’re within the window, you got this. You can handle stress and pressure and annoying drivers who cut you off in traffic. Toddler spill milk again? Whatever. Mother-in-law overstepping her boundaries? Deep breath and you deal.
On either end of the window, though, is hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal—this is when emotions and bodily reactions get tricky. Hyper-arousal is when your body kicks and screams into fight or flight mode, feeling anxious, overwhelmed, angry, or out of control.
Then there’s hypo-arousal, a comfortable zone for those of us familiar with depression. “Typically when we are avoidant, tired, and disengaged, we may be on the lower end toward hypo-arousal, which can be normal for all of us from time to time. We all have ups and downs,” Doughty says.
Need a break? A nap? To run away to the mountains and not talk to anyone but the bears? Me too. Know you don’t choose to behave like this; it’s a survival tactic for your body. I think of it as hibernation, going into shutdown mode and eliminating the riffraff so my body can use its little remaining energy to make sure my heart is still beating and my lungs are still taking in air.
“When we’re in hypo-arousal it causes more trouble because we’re probably avoiding work, sleeping too much and completely ghosting people,” Doughty says. Sound familiar? “Likely we are outside the window of tolerance, fully in a dorsal vagal shutdown. We feel numb, frozen or spacey.” Check, check, check.
Step 2: Find a middle path.
So you’re in hypo-arousal. Now what? Ignore everyone and everything around us and cross our fingers our work and relationships will be a-okay when we emerge from our hibernation? I’ve tried this and I don’t recommend it.
Doughty puts it much more elegantly. “We often need a break from stimulus and need to create distance, with the intention of reengaging when we have taken some time away from the crowd to rejuvenate,” she says.
If you’re finding yourself needing to take a break from the crowds, explain to your friends that getting away from things is a way for you to recharge. Find a middle path. If a friend invites you out, suggest a low-key night in with Thai takeout instead. Be upfront with your closest circle that you may need more time to respond to communication; all this rapid-fire chit chat is too much for you right now. Letting people in on your needs will prevent against them feeling alienated.
“Slowing down and taking a break when you’re on the lower end of your window of tolerance can actually be helpful for staying in your window of tolerance,” Doughty says. “When we notice we need a break it’s better to take the break than force ourselves to be ‘out and about’ on everyone else’s terms.”
“Slowing down and taking a break when you’re on the lower end of your window of tolerance can actually be helpful for staying in your window of tolerance,” Doughty says. “When we notice we need a break it’s better to take the break than force ourselves to be ‘out and about’ (said with a full-fledged Minnesotan accent!) on everyone else’s terms, burning ourselves out and risking an even more intense shutdown.”
Step 3: Understand the difference between guilt and shame.
Guilt ≠ shame. Doughty explains the difference this way: “Shame is about your ‘who’ and guilt is about your ‘do.’ While guilt can be adaptive or helpful for adjusting course, shame is debilitating and attacks us at the core of who we are,” she says.
Take a second to read that again.
“Guilt would say, ‘That wasn’t the best way to handle that.’ Shame says, ‘I suck. I’m worthless. I’ll never get this right.’” While guilt invites us to be curious and try, try again next time, shame sucks us into paralysis and further into shutdown mode, lengthening our stay in isolation.
It’s necessary to have a healthy concept of guilt; it acts as our inner angel versus devil and reminds us we inherently understand the difference between right and wrong. But once you recognize it, guilt no longer serves us. Let that sh*t go. Or, Doughty says more politely, “Once you’ve learned from it, guilt is no longer needed, so graciously thank it for being helpful and gently ask it to leave.”
If you don’t, guilty can slip into shame quite easily. “Shame is guilt’s alter-ego that we want to be wary of,” Doughty warns. Notice how guilt and shame feel different from one another, so the next time you find yourself coughing in the fog of toxic shame, you can identify it and release it to whatever plane far, far away, old shame lives on.
Shame—tricky, icky shame—will make the apology tour feel never-ending. How daunting does that sound? Guilt, meanwhile, can be your bud, making the apology tour more effective and something that will ultimately help you regulate emotions and stay in your window of tolerance.
Step 4: Make your apology count.
While apologizing—Which you should do! If you’re actually sorry!—Doughty suggests asking for feedback about what it was like for your friends to be ghosted. Warning: It ain’t going to be easy to hear this feedback, but it’s imperative to understand how our behavior affects others; it leads to more motivation to find a middle path.
Turns out I like the view better off the apology tour bus. I’ll stay here for now, in my comfortable window of tolerance, knowing I’ll likely need to hop back on at some point – but this time with tools.
Megan is a writer, editor, etc.-er who writes about life and travel for Domino, Here and Apartment 34. Her life rules include, but are not limited to: zipper when merging, tip in cash and contribute to your IRA. Follow along with her (or don’t! that’s fine too!) on Instagram.