"Window of Tolerance": How Trauma Impacts Our Ability to Cope.
What we experience throughout life shapes us and strongly impacts how we deal with challenges. If we are exposed to deeply distressing or disturbing experiences (a traumatic event or events that occur over a span of time) and/or had parents who were unable to meet our needs as children, this can and does severely impact our ability to regulate our body, our emotions and our reactions.
The “Window of Tolerance” helps us visualize what it’s like when we are within an optimal zone of arousal, where we are able to effectively manage the ebb and flow of emotional states and can also feel a sense of calm and connection with others. When we move outside of the window, our nervous system moves to instincts. Survival mode kicks in and we either fight, flee or freeze. When we move outside of the window, we end up in a hyperarousal zone or hypoarousal zone.
Hyperarousal (fight/flight response):
Hypervigilance/on high alert and sensing danger is lurking everywhere
Difficulty with sleep, eating/digestion
Hypoarousal (freeze response):
Feeling of numbness
Lack of emotional expression
Dissociation (can be a sense of losing time; disconnection from body, thoughts, feelings and whatever is happening in your surroundings)
Can also impact sleep, eating and digestion
Can occur if too overwhelmed from hyperarousal
Traumatic experiences in life can shrink our window. When the window closes, this represents a decreased ability for us to help ourselves cope and our nervous system to regulate. Meaning, we more easily shift into hyper or hypo arousal. Things that close our window/limit our capacity to tolerate varying emotional states:
· Shock trauma: near death experience; assault; witnessing violence; natural disasters
· Developmental trauma: parental/caregiver neglect; physical, sexual or emotional abuse; growing up within a family with addictions; poverty
The trouble is many people who have been exposed to any of the above may not have not been taught, or do not have, the resources to effectively deal with the distress. Something else to keep in mind is that our nervous system only has so much capacity, so when we cannot stay within our window, our nervous system will do the job for us (i.e. hyper/hypo arousal). Another problem is that many people don’t know this is what their system is doing and label themselves, or are labeled by others, as “crazy”, “bad”, “lazy”, “psycho”, “messed up” and the list can go on. But let me tell you something...
*None of these labels are true*
The ability to cope and regulate our nervous systems effectively is not something we are born with. It is something we observe and learn when those around us lead by example. One of the most significant ways to have the ability to regulate is when parents can regulate themselves and attune to their children. Other times, this attunement and support can be found through other loved ones or a good therapist. No matter what we’ve experienced, it is possible to open our window, even if it is just a few millimeters at a time. We just have to be willing to do the work.
Things that can open our window/increase our capacity to tolerate varying emotional states:
· A good therapist – specifically one who is trauma-informed (if you're not sure, ask them.)
· Friends or loved ones who offer safe, trusting connection
· Grounding techniques
· Movement: Yoga, tai-chi, rocking chair
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there may be specific activities that are best suited for each person’s individual needs. If you believe you are struggling with hyper/hypo arousal, are interested in opening your window of tolerance, and/or are looking to add a few skills to help you cope more effectively, please click here to contact me.