When we think of trauma, it’s easy to focus on big ticket issues (i.e. experiencing violence, parental neglect, car accidents). We tend to overlook the frequency of little traumas that are experienced daily (i.e. harsh rebukes from parents, feeling unloved, financial strains). The accumulation of these big and little traumas make a significant shift in our emotional capacity. Dan Siegel introduced the term window of tolerance (see image below) to explain how our nervous system handles stress. There is an optimal zone of arousal where we can function effectively. When we are at our best, we can manage the ebb and flow of emotions without becoming too dysregulated. Sure, there are times when we become tired or worried, but we can work through these moments quickly using some coping strategies. There may be times where we hit the edge of our window of tolerance, and we realize we’re feeling out of sorts. However, we are able to self-soothe, and return back to our regular level of functioning without too much trouble.With trauma, our window of tolerance reduces significantly (see image below). Perhaps you’ve faced critical comments from your partner, seen the stack of growing bills on the table, and are still reeling from fights with your kid. Or, maybe you’ve just experienced the first physical altercation in your new relationship. These traumas throw our nervous system into a frenzy. Our window of tolerance decreases, and our senses and experiences become heightened. Situation that we handled before become too much to manage today, and we are quicker to blow up or shut down.
The nervous system isn’t comfortable in staying in hyperarousal or hypoarousal for too long, and it will do whatever is needed to shift us out of these states. So what does that actually mean? If we are used to an unsafe world, and are often hyperaroused (i.e. ready to attack, panicking), our body becomes numb to triggers. Things that would have normally created distress (i.e. abuse in the home) no longer seem like such a big deal. Our nervous system gets used to it. On the other hand, if we’re stuck in hypoarousal (flat, depressed, shut down), there is an urge to shift by using activities that make us feel alive. If we feel too far gone to think clearly, it is natural to seek out quick fixes (i.e. substance use, self-harm, etc). What are some ways to help widen our window of tolerance?
- Access to a safe home. If your world is genuinely threatening, it’s hard to ask your nervous system to calm down. It’s like asking yourself to stay calm if a lion is running straight at you.
- Engage in social activities with safe others. Humans are social beings, and we gain a lot of support by regulating with other people.
- Silly activities or games that help us realize we are not in a place of danger (i.e. dancing, freeze-tag, board games)
- Funny/feel-good movies
- Temperature Change
- Deep breathing
- Exercise (especially cardio, or anything that will get your heart rate up)
- Music (either soothing music, or energizing songs)
As always, if you have any specific concerns or questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.