Trauma Responses: Understanding Your Window of Tolerance
Our past experiences and trauma affect what is called our Window of Tolerance – the space in which we feel capable and comfortable
Psychotherapist Lisa Daitz explains how this concept can increase your self-understanding
We have trauma-informed therapists available on Welldoing – find them here
Increasingly, and particularly after Covid and becoming an EMDR practitioner alongside my existential therapy work, I’m looking through a ‘trauma lens’ as I meet a client for the first time and start to take a history. Whether we’re exploring single incident traumas, complex trauma, trauma with a big T or a small t, I’m looking at the impact of past experiences on the way my clients live now. And the Window of Tolerance is a concept that is incredibly useful in understanding this.
Very early on in the work, I share the model and the concepts with my clients as we strive to make sense of the challenges they face and the way they relate to themselves, to the world and to others.
The Window of Tolerance
Grounded in neuroscience, and developed by Dan Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, the Window of Tolerance describes our optimal state of arousal, the window in which we can most comfortably function. Within our Window of Tolerance we are grounded, flexible, open and curious, present and able to emotionally self-regulate.
The Window of Tolerance then looks at what happens when we move outside of our window and describes what happens when we dysregulate. It describes states of hyperarousal and hypoarousal. It’s incredibly helpful to really understand your own Window of Tolerance, how you stay in that window, what happens to move you out of that window and how you are affected.
When we look at the Window of Tolerance we can compare it to a river. When the river is wide we can float along comfortably. We feel balanced and with a calm state of mind; we feel relaxed and in control; we are able to function in our most effective way and we feel able to take on the challenges that life throws at us. But when the river narrows it starts to feel unsafe and our emotional states start to become dysregulated.
Our response may be one of hyperarousal or hypoarousal. Again using the comparison of the river, we can look at hyperarousal on one bank and hypoarousal on the opposite site. As the river narrows we can move from one side to the other, unbalanced, ungrounded and unable to find our way back to the centre and the calm.
As we deviate from our window of tolerance towards hyperarousal and begin to dysregulate we can start to feel agitated, anxious or angry. We feel uncomfortable but we are not yet out of control. Once in hyperarousal we can feel an abnormal state of increased responsiveness and alert to perceived signs of danger. Our senses can feel overloaded or ‘chaotic’ and we can feel irritable, anxious, in a state of panic, angry and ready to argue or fight. We feel out of control. This is the fight or flight state where we want to fight or run away.
We may, however, deviate from our window of tolerance towards hypoarousal. As we dysregulate we may feel overwhelmed and have a sense of disassociating or shutting down. We can lose track of time. As with hyperarousal, at this dysregulation stage we don’t feel out of control yet but we don’t feel comfortable. Once in the hypoarousal state there is abnormal responsiveness but unlike a state of hyperarousal where we are over-vigilant, here there is a sense of shutting down or disassociating.
There can be a rigidity. We may feel emotional numbness, exhaustion and depression. We may feel numb and disconnected. This is the freeze or flop state.
Understanding our own Window of Tolerance
We all have different ‘windows’, impacted by our own childhood and adult experiences, our resources and social support, our environment and life situation, our neurobiology and other social factors. Once we begin to understand our own Window of Tolerance we can start to see our different emotional states and begin to recognise when we are in our window, when we become dysregulated and how we are affected.
We can also start to understand what’s happening to make us feel dysregulated and either moving us towards hyperarousal or hypoarousal. Recognising and exploring dysregulation allows us to revisit the window to truly understand it and then look at how we can expand it. In doing so, we can move away from states of hyperarousal or hypoarousal.
Expanding our Window of Tolerance
The size of our window can change from day to day but expanding our Window of Tolerance will, ultimately, allow us to see incredible changes. What makes us remain in a balanced and calm state of mind? What makes us feel relaxed and in control? When are we able to function most effectively and take on life’s challenges? This kind of reflection and these explorative questions can shed a light on how we need to live our lives. This is also where self-care comes in, whether it’s meditation, yoga, gardening, socialising with certain friends or getting more sleep, knowing how to look after ourselves and what is good and nourishing for us, allows us to stay in and expand our window of tolerance.
When our Window of Tolerance shrinks
At the same time as understanding how we may expand our own Window of Tolerance, we also need to understand what causes it to shrink and this is where stress and trauma comes in. Stress and trauma can cause our window of tolerance to shrink, moving us into dysregulation and towards hyperarousal or hypoarousal. As we monitor where we are in our own Window of Tolerance, we can see how certain events and experiences can lead the river to narrow and move us into dysregulation.
Some of these are apparent: too much work; plans falling apart because of unforeseen circumstances; an encounter with an angry driver. We can see how this may upset us and shrink our Window. Other events and experiences, like difficult feelings or relationship issues, anxiety or depression, need more exploration and the support of therapy.
Trauma and the Window of Tolerance
When traumatic memories are triggered we can immediately dysregulate and become hyperaroused or hypoaroused. Traumatic memories are processed differently from other memories and here fragments are of the memory become frozen and are not integrated with the rest of the individual’s experience. So when a traumatic memory becomes triggered, this leads to re-experiencing rather than remembering. And this can be as traumatic as the original event.
Here is where trauma therapy like EMDR plays an essential part, working on desensitising and reprocessing traumatic memories to allow them to be remembered without being re-experienced. So when there is a trigger there is no longer a perceived existential threat, allowing someone who has been affected by trauma to expand and stay in their Window of Tolerance.
Wherever you are in your own ‘river’, exploring the Window of Tolerance can bring about great self-understanding and allow incredible change.