Titration is a term that comes from chemistry and medicine that means to adjust the concentration or amount of a substance or medicine until the right balance is found. In emotional and psychological work, this term has been borrowed to refer to monitoring and adjusting the amount of stimulation we introduce to our system in order to maintain our internal landscape in a state that is ordered enough for us to be able to learn from any changes that are happening. It’s a bit like observing how much water comes through a tap or a faucet, and using the handles on the tap to adjust the flow up or down where needed. To titrate our experience is to intentionally keep ourselves in a state of safeness through opening and closing our exposure to stimulation.
When we are open, we are willing and able to have full, emotional, visceral, social, psychological, and spiritual experiences. We are able to take in prompts from the outside world and to watch to see what happens in our inner world in response. We are open to new experiences because we feel safe and we understand, somewhere in our being, that growth through being open is a big part of living an authentic, resilient life. We are willing to introduce new information from teachers, nature, fellow travelers, and our own intuition to our old internal story or somatic understanding. Being open doesn’t necessarily mean we are able to attach cognitive meaning to our experience, especially if it is a somatic one, but we have the wisdom to know when a shift has occurred for us, when a door has opened, or when a blockage has been removed in our system somewhere.
When we are open, we feel a release and we might cry or laugh or feel very, very alive. We might have one of those “aha!” moments. When we are open we are like a vessel ready to be filled. Opening is an important part of our process of developing as a spiritual, mindful, self-compassionate being.
Closing is the counterpoint to opening. Being able to close is how we balance time taking in new material in a trusting, wide-eyed way with time to process to allow that new material to integrate, compost, assimilate and move material around in our internal landscape. We can’t be open all the time – partly because as adults we have important work to do in the world that requires us to bring our skills of boundary-setting, perseverance, focussed effort, and repetitive tending to the activities in our life. We need to be able to get in a car and navigate traffic or respond to 20 emails in an efficient manner. Closing is the process of ceasing to take in new psychological, emotional, or spiritual material because of the need to have balance in our system.
After a period of opening (at a retreat, or when reading a touching book or watching a touching movie) our system will tell us when it is time to close. We don’t need to intellectually make that decision: we feel it in our body. We might get some physical signs that it’s time to close, like feeling tired, irritated, bored or just “full.” Initially we might resist closing because being open can feel so good and if we are at a retreat or workshop we feel we need to make the most of our precious time in that environment and remain open the whole time. However, this is not self-compassionate or mindful – this is resistance, and it won’t serve us in the end. Trying to remain open when we need to close is part of the “subtle aggression of self-improvement” that Rob Sharples refers to. We might try to cram more emotional material into our system the way we might cram intellectual material into our mind when preparing for an exam, but our emotional learning is not the same as our intellectual learning. Emotional learning has to go at the pace of our body, which is slower moving and more grounded than our mind. We might think that we are in control of our body, but the more we tune into that amazing system the more we realize that we are really just along for the ride and our body is, in fact, the one calling the shots!
After some practice we can learn to notice signs of needing to close more quickly and respond appropriately. Initial experiences of closing might confuse us, but after we’ve experienced and named it as closing repeatedly (much like the way we can notice, name, acknowledge and validate backdraft) we come to see it as part of our inner knowing, our inner navigation tool, our inner teacher. If we’re in the company of others who are practicing similarly to us, we might even speak it out loud: “I’m closing/closed right now.” Like speaking shame, speaking closing helps us connect in common humanity and helps us to normalize and validate our experience. Closing can cause shame, especially when we feel we should be performing in some way and our closing means we can no longer respond experientially (eg if we’re a teacher of this material in front of a group) so speaking closing can help if we do experience shame around this process.
Window of Tolerance
Our understanding of the process of opening and closing can help us to manage our emotional experience, especially when we feel we might be moving into an area of overwhelm. We can think of emotional experience as being in one of three areas:
- Low emotional stimulation, when we don’t really learn anything: a bit like being in our house with all our familiar things and nothing new to learn from;
- Window of emotional tolerance, where we are stimulated just enough so that the discomfort gives us information about our system that we can work with: a bit like being at the threshold window between the safety of our house and the big unknown world outside in a way that we feel held and can easily move back into the safety of our house if needed;
- Emotional overwhelm where our sympathetic nervous system, our fight-flight-freeze system, is starting to be recruited to manage a threat: a bit like being out in an unknown world with few resources to help us maintain our balance other than our survival skills.
When we are in a place of emotional overwhelm, the power of our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and it does so with whatever energy it has. A healthy sympathetic nervous system will have enough cortisol and adrenaline to rally our muscles, our heart, our lungs and other important survival systems to get us out of that situation. A depleted nervous system may simply shut us down, numb us, lead us to disassociate. Either way, there is no capacity to take on new emotional material at this time – our amygdala has identified threat and our ancient brain is reacting. This is how we survive, but it is not how we grow spiritually.
Moving into a place of overwhelm is not a place we want to intentionally go to during our practice. Our daily life will test our fight-flight-freeze system enough and it isn’t served by moving ourselves intentionally into overwhelm at other times when it is not needed (an exception to this might be within the held container of a therapy session where “exposure” to a perceived threat is intentionally brought on so that a therapist can skillfully introduce new material – but this kind of work definitely requires the help of a professional). Our threat defense system is not strengthened through testing it out in non-threat times – we simply deplete our resources of cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine when we are in continual and repeated instances of threat.
So during practice we want to keep ourselves, as much as we can, in that window of emotional tolerance. Titrating our level of exposure to new material helps us to do that. This means we bring in an act of intentional closing when we sense we are moving into a place of overwhelm.
- If we start to have images of trauma experiences that we feel emotionally ill-equipped to stay with, this is moving into overwhelm.
- If we feel a sense of panic rising in our system, this is moving into overwhelm.
- If we start to feel emotionally or physically unsafe, this is moving into overwhelm.
Noticing these signs is part of our practice training, and responding by intentionally pulling out of our emotional experience is one of the most skillful and profoundly self-compassionate things we can do. It’s akin to fierce self-compassion: responding through clear boundary-setting in order to protect vulnerable and less-equipped parts of ourselves.
Titrating might mean you close the tap and:
- cease to explore material emotionally, but bring your experience up into your intellect and view it with the curiosity of an objective scientist. This might include writing about your experience, researching terms and concepts online or in books, or simply listening to a teacher talk about this material, without engaging with it emotionally;
- move your awareness to a neutral object of meditation like sound, your breath, the sensation of touch, or sensations in your internal body. You might also do one of the HeartWorks meditations designed to help you settle ungroundedness;
- employ the physical self-care strategies in this Somatic Self-Compassion First Aid article.
Titrating might also mean that you intentionally open the tap a little more because you feel resourced to explore a bit further. It might mean that you venture further into your emotional landscape with some new possibilities, knowing that you can close the tap off a bit when needed.
You can learn to tune into the wisdom of your body in finding out what you need in any given moment. This might take some practice, but you will eventually get to a place where you can lean on your body’s wisdom more and more. You can learn to recruit the wisdom of your body to take care of yourself emotionally so that you start to feel as if you are not wandering into your emotional material alone and unskilled. Your body becomes your guide and your companion.