Window of Tolerance: An Essential Skill for PTSD, Trauma and Nervous System Regulation

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Talking about trauma can make things worse. I’m a therapist, and I know how valuable it CAN be to talk about trauma, but when you don’t understand your “Window of Tolerance” talking about trauma can backfire. 

Because the trauma response is rooted in your nervous system, when you recall trauma, your brain can get stuck, overwhelmed, flooded or dissociated. And you might not even notice it. 

And that’s why understanding the “Window of Tolerance” is absolutely essential to doing trauma work, it’s probably one of the first things your therapist assesses without you even realizing it. 

And when you do understand your window of tolerance, when you can stay in your window- it makes it possible to talk about trauma, process through it, and move forward, 

So in this video we’ll talk about the three states of your nervous system, the two common pitfalls of trying to talk about trauma, and the practical skills you can use to widen your window of tolerance so that you’re more resilient in the face of stressors or trauma.

Grounding Skills for PTSD, Anxiety

OK, first, one of the paradoxical things about doing trauma work is that sometimes, well, often really, trying to talk about trauma can make things worse.

I mean not only does it feel worse (and that’s why so many people avoid thinking about or talking about their trauma) but also, bringing up trauma without a certain set of skills, can actually reinforce the trauma response, make it stronger and louder instead of helping you work through it. 

When we remember a traumatic event, we bring to mind those thoughts, feelings and sensations – our uniquely human brain perceives danger right here in the present moment, and this triggers a fight/flight/freeze response.

The memory of trauma in the past triggers a physical reaction in the present, a survival response,  and one of the results of a FFF response is that it shuts down your ability to think clearly.

When you believe you’re in danger, you’re going to run away from that tiger, not balance your budget. So your brain shuts down emotional processing and cognitive processing and powers up your muscles (Fight or flight) or if the threat seems overwhelming, it kicks on a freeze response- (shut down, curl up), hide, conserve your energy.

And these are survival responses, they’re primal, deep in your anciently evolved brain, they can help you survive a physical threat, but they can stop you from being able to process past trauma. 

You think about a traumatic event, your body gets activated, your processing shuts down, and your brain learns I wasn’t just in danger when I got in that car crash, but just thinking about that car crash feels dangerous, and that anxiety gets stronger.

So people often get stuck in the number 1 pitfall- just avoiding thinking about their traumatic experience. 

Or the second most common problem is when people try to work through trauma is they try to “get it over with” so they just try to jump in too fast, get triggered and reinforce that trauma response. 

But with the right skills, you can learn to work through trauma in a really productive way, and here’s where the “Window of Tolerance” comes in.

When we understand how our nervous system works, you can learn how to become less reactive to stress and increase your ability to experience all kinds of feelings, not just stress or overwhelm, but also happiness and excitement. 

The term was originally coined by Dan Siegal, and it describes how your brain and body react to high levels of stress, the common responses we see to trauma.

Every person has a range of experiences that they are able to sit with and work through, basically your window of tolerance is your personal capacity to tolerate distress. There are essentially 3 “zones”.

Window Of Tolerance

Window of tolerance- you feel safe, you’re connected to the present moment, and you can handle stressors and triggers.

You can think clearly, and connect with others. You can sit with your feelings and thoughts. When we are regulated or supported enough, this is the space where we can best work through big feelings, intense memories, and bodily reactions.

But what we often see with trauma survivors, is that when they try to work through their trauma, or even just in their daily lives, they quickly get overwhelmed. And that’s because when we have unprocessed trauma, even small triggers can flood the brain with a FFF response, and this shuts down processing. 

So the next state is called Hyperarousal- aka Fight or Flight- This is when you feel threatened or anxious (Even if you don’t know why). You’re more sensitive to sights or sounds, you might have racing thoughts, or see threats everywhere leading you to act irritable or edgy, you might interrupt people or act controlling. In the “Run Away” state you’ll notice jittery muscles or you feel driven to just keep busy. This can look like perfectionism, procrastination, or distraction. 

Essentially, your brain has remembered a past threat and triggered a present Fight or flight response, a stress response. Which is fine in short bursts, but when we get stuck in this over and over, the chronic stress can be harmful and depleting. 

So for example,  you’re ready to work on some old trauma, but every time you try to talk about it in therapy, you get shaky, your mind races, or goes blank, it’s like you can’t even make words and the therapy session seems like it’s over in a blink- you can’t really remember what was said. That’s most likely getting stuck in hyperarousal. 

The third state is Hypoarousal, and I think this one doesn’t get enough emphasis. This is where your primal responses turn on a “shut down and detach mode.”

You may feel numb, foggy, empty, detached, unmotivated, tired, lethargic, in the short term you might feel like giving up or “Why bother” in the long run this looks like burnout and depression. This is a protective numbing state.

It’s triggered by your brain perceiving a threat to be too big to escape, like a little child who can’t leave their abusive parent, so they just numb out to protect themselves from hurt.

Sometimes they prefer this state because they don’t have to feel.  Some people are actually so good at this that you might look super chill on the outside, but you’re actually massively dissociating on the inside.

Some people can be high functioning even in hypoarousal, but usually it’s only in one area, like work, but they can’t function in relationships or at home. More often, people don’t function well and on the extreme end, you might completely freeze up and be unable to move or speak. 

When I was in the hospital recently for 4 days with my baby, the doctors would talk to me and I’d have to have them repeat what they said over and over because I just wasn’t processing what they were saying.

Like I’m reasonably intelligent with some medical background, it wasn’t that the words were too big for me, it was that the stress of worrying about my child made the part of my brain that processes information not work so well.

I was somewhere stuck between hyper and hypoarousal. I seemed fine on the outside, I was pleasant and cracking jokes, but I wasn’t processing information, and when I got home it all hit me and I was able to understand her diagnosis, but also emotionally I was drowning. I didn’t feel stressed out or look distressed on the surface, but when I got home I had a meltdown. 

Sometimes this state looks like Fawning, this is the instinctual response to appease people, even a perpetrator. You may try to keep others happy, acquiesce, or try to just “go with the flow” and avoid any conflict. So you give up all your boundaries in an attempt to stay safe. 

So here’s what this looks like- throughout a day. So let’s say that you wake up in the morning, normal day, but you get to work and your boss is immediately jumping on your back, rushing you, you’re stressed, but then you make a big mistake, you feel an overwhelming sense of shame, your parents used to endlessly criticize you if you weren’t perfect.

So, as an adult, you act like everything is fine but inside you are going numb, you’re horrified, you think about quitting, you don’t care anymore about the project, you just say yes to everything everyone else says and go through the motions. When you get home you just curl up in a ball on the couch, turn on the TV and zone out.

Your spouse asks “How was your day” and you can’t even manage to tell them how awful it was. Walls go up, maybe you’re irritable or discouraged, you feel like a failure, but you can’t muster any energy to think about work, to face the challenge. You get stuck in hypoarousal. You just feel tired, burnt out, numb. 

So in this situation, due to unresolved childhood hurt, your window of tolerance has shrunk a little, you’re sensitive to criticism and you get stuck in the shutdown response.

If you try to process that trauma in therapy, you might feel numb, withdrawn, bored, or like curling into a ball on the couch. 

Some people have a very large window of tolerance, it’s unique to every person. Some people have a very narrow window of tolerance. It can vary from day to day.

It can depend on your physical health, emotional reserves, and how much support you have. Some people can tolerate physical pain very well, but can’t handle sadness, others might be able to sit with pain or sadness, but not anger. 

And it’s not just about uncomfortable emotions, your window of tolerance also includes your ability to feel happiness, excitement, joy. People with a wide window of tolerance are able to feel lots of big emotions, and work through them without getting overwhelmed.

Trauma can shrink people’s window of tolerance, your nervous system is just more reactive to perceived threats. But so can anything that depletes your resilience like physical illness, chronic stress, discrimination or poverty or even in the short term, stuff like being hungry or tired can shrink your window. 

But the great thing is, your window is not fixed, you can learn and develop skills to expand your window of tolerance. Every time you learn a new skill like grounding or willingness or cognitive defusion, you increase your window of tolerance.

When you take care of your body with sleep, nutrition and exercise, or you build up a support network, this all increases your ability to work through big emotions and memories. 

And so do challenging experiences, things that are stressful but within your growth zone. This includes things like physical exercise, facing stressors head-on, solving problems, and processing through difficult emotions and memories. 

But when it comes to trauma work, a good therapist can be vital. 

<Therapist-co-regulation> Here’s what a therapist does, they’re sitting in the room with you and even if you aren’t aware of it, they notice when you go out of your Window, then they help you get back regulated.  They’ll help you learn the skills to get back into your window of tolerance after your nervous system is triggered. 

When You’re Stuck In Hyperarousal

When you’re stuck in hyperarousal, what you need are soothing skills, grounding, or a more cognitive focus- creating a little distance between self and feelings, this includes “Colder forms of re-living” maybe we slow down the processing through writing, or take breaks or process memories in small doses instead of all at once.

So if you’re processing trauma and getting really activated and anxious, your therapist would coach you to get grounded by holding a heavy object or pressing something cold to your face, and always the reminder, that here in this moment, you are safe.

If you’re stuck in hypoarousal, you need gentle activation, getting re-present, moving gently, laughing a little. In this case, we need ‘Hotter forms of re-living” so maybe you start shaking out your hands, or patting your legs.

The goal is to move through the activated state towards the state of calm. And we can’t just think our way out of this, we need to use our body to communicate to our brain that we are capable, we can move, we can handle this and be safe.

One of the most effective things you can do to process trauma is to learn to identify these states in yourself and tailor your favorite grounding skills and activating skills to help you move back into your window of tolerance. 

So here’s some questions to help you explore this: 

When you are in your window of tolerance, how do you feel? 

What helps you stay there when things get tough? 

What kinds of things push you above your window of tolerance? What does hyperarousal feel in your body? What do you notice in yourself? What would others notice about you? 

What kinds of things push you into hypoarousal? What situations lead you to feel numb or shut down? What does that feel like in your body? Does this lead to any kind of actions?

As you work with a therapist to face your fears and process hurtful experiences your window of tolerance will grow. You can build your internal resources when you build self- awareness of what zone you are in, develop grounding skills, and learn to get activated when you need to.

The more time you spend within your window will strengthen your parasympathetic response, and facing small challenges little by little, in your stretch zone can widen your window of tolerance and help you be more adaptive, flexible, and resilient. 

Learn how to Break the Anxiety Cycle in 30 Days by clicking the link below. 

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