Opening the window

In this eighth installment in our family’s quest to bring peace to our home, I share a hypothesis — that food additives help cause our son’s window of stress tolerance to close. (The series begins here.)  

Part 1: Food is my hammer
Part 2: Seeing red
Part 3: The Weekend of Orange
Part 4: Why I’m passionate about what we eat
Part 5: Following the clues
Part 6: The power of peppers: my story
Part 7: The Weekend of … something really different

The obvious question is: Was our family’s newfound peace a function of place?

Who wouldn’t become more peaceful out in the wilds of Washington, out of cell phone tower range, away from the distractions of email, social media and news channels? Nothing to hear but a river, creaking trees, and the sound of our own voices and heartbeats … nothing to see but the perfectly orderly disorder of nature—trunks and leaves and rocks and ripples … nothing to smell but forest freshness, and damp riverine flora … .

But here’s the thing: When we returned to our regular, overstimulated lives—to our close-in townhome community, to too much work, too many activities, too much noise, too much racing around in cars—we found that with our shift in diet had come a shift in behavior.

To be more specific, a shift in reactivity. There was, quite simply, less of it.

Heather Forbes, a social worker, speaker and writer in the field of trauma and healing, describes a window of stress tolerance in her book Help for Billy. She writes:

“A child’s window of stress tolerance is defined by his ability to withstand pressure, overwhelm and fear without becoming dysregulated and without reaching his ‘breaking point.’”

We each have a window, and we each have a breaking point. What she goes on to explain is that some of us—for whatever reason—have a higher baseline of stress than others. Meaning: For those with a higher baseline, it takes fewer stressors to hit the breaking point.

In the following illustration, from a talk by Forbes, Andy has a low baseline. He can absorb and deal with many added stresses—transitions, visual and auditory stimulation, unpredictability, etc.

However, Billy’s baseline is high, quite close to the breaking point even before encountering a single external stressor. Give him a glare or surprise him with a deadline, and he’s going to hit his breaking point fast.

From “Stress and Childhood Trauma” presentation by Heather Forbes, LCSW.

I believe that for our son, food additives constitute an invisible stressor—a physiological one—that takes up a lot of space in his window of tolerance. When he has consumed something that on some level doesn’t agree with him, it doesn’t take much added stress to bring him to his breaking point.

When we remove the food additives—what I’ve taken to calling “the crappity McCrap”—he has a lot more room to maneuver and absorb the common stresses of life.

So … great! Problem solved, right?

Actually, it was only the beginning. In my next post I’ll share a particularly surprising place where these additives—and denial of their impact—lurk.

Next: The irony of additives …


Today’s spoonful of sugar: Shepherd’s Pie with Cauliflower Topping! Our family loves this hearty treatment of shepherd’s pie. The recipe calls for ground beef or lamb, but I’ve always made it with ground turkey or chicken … and recently tried it with venison. Both were fantastic.

Quick. Easy. Healthy. Yummy.

Photo by Tarik Haiga on Unsplash

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