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Widen the Window

Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma

By Elizabeth A. Stanley, PhD
15-minute read
Audio available
Widen the Window by Elizabeth A. Stanley, PhD

Widen the Window (2019) is your guide to healing trauma, relieving chronic stress, and living fully in the present. Drawing on her personal experience as a military leader and building on the latest science, Elizabeth A. Stanley examines how stress and trauma impact our mind and body; how our culture incentivizes work over health; and how mindfulness can bridge the gap between our thinking brains and our bodies’ ancient survival stress response.

  • Anyone who has suffered physical or psychological trauma 
  • People working in the military, first response, and other high stress professions
  • Overachievers, workaholics, and other “type A” personalities

Elizabeth A. Stanley is a US Army veteran, award-winning author, and associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University. She holds degrees in political science and strategy from Harvard, Yale, and MIT, and has used her experience to create the acclaimed Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT), a method used to help soldiers and civilians manage high-stress situations.

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Widen the Window

Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma

By Elizabeth A. Stanley, PhD
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Widen the Window by Elizabeth A. Stanley, PhD
Synopsis

Widen the Window (2019) is your guide to healing trauma, relieving chronic stress, and living fully in the present. Drawing on her personal experience as a military leader and building on the latest science, Elizabeth A. Stanley examines how stress and trauma impact our mind and body; how our culture incentivizes work over health; and how mindfulness can bridge the gap between our thinking brains and our bodies’ ancient survival stress response.

Key idea 1 of 9

Stress and trauma prompt the “ancient” part of our brain to engage our bodies’ natural defense systems. 

Stress and trauma are often seen as separate issues in our culture. Often, we view stress as something to brag about — a sign of our busyness and importance. Trauma, on the other hand, is viewed as a serious, more or less permanent condition in response to a horrible event. 

But for your mind and body, stress and trauma lie on the same spectrum. That’s right, how you react to an angry email from your boss versus a gun to your head actually have a lot in common. Both rely on an ancient survival response of your brain — it’s just a matter of degrees.

Your brain can be roughly divided into two parts. The surface, or neocortex, is the “thinking brain,” which enables higher cognitive functions such as thoughts, plans, and memories. These activities are mostly conscious and voluntary.

Below the surface lies the “survival brain,” which consists of the limbic system, brainstem, and cerebellum. It exists in all mammals, regulating basic survival functions such as breathing, sleeping, and hunger — most of which are not under our conscious control.

Most importantly, the survival brain also regulates your response to stress. It constantly scans your environment for internal or external threats in a process called neuroception. When the survival brain neurocepts a threat, it engages your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which controls things like hormones, heart rate, and digestion to help you deal with the situation. The ANS has two branches: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), which is responsible for turning stress activation on; and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS), responsible for turning it off. 

When stress activation is turned on by the SNS, your mind-body system runs through your three lines of defense.

The first one is your social engagement system. Imagine yourself walking alone in a park at night when suddenly, a hooded figure blocks your path. Your first reaction would likely be to look around for other people, perhaps yelling for help. 

Once you realize you’re all alone, your SNS resorts to your second line of defense, the fight-or-flight response. You prepare yourself to throw a punch, but when the hooded figure produces a knife, your heart jumps and you run away. 

Now imagine that you’re not fast enough. Your attacker catches you and pins you to the ground. Your body goes slack, and your mind goes blank. This last line of defense is freeze, and it’s the one most often associated with trauma. It happens when the survival brain perceives you to be truly helpless. The stress of such trauma can get stored in your body and brain for a long time.

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