Today we delve into the concept of the window of tolerance. For those who have experienced trauma, understanding this vital aspect of our autonomic nervous system can be a powerful tool for navigating the upsetting responses of our nervous system. When I work with clients, I like to introduce the window of tolerance early on in our collaboration since it helps us to understand what happens in our bodies and supports us in regaining control. I believe that working with the window of tolerance is an important element of the first phase of trauma recovery, the so-called stabilization phase. So, let's look at the window of tolerance.
What is the window of tolerance?
The window of tolerance, introduced by Dan Siegel in 1999, is a fundamental concept that describes three distinct states of arousal. The graphic above shows the different zones: the window of tolerance, hypoarousal, and hyperarousal. If we are in our window of tolerance, we experience optimal arousal. In this state, we can effectively manage and cope with our emotions, even if they are intense.
When we are within our window of tolerance, we have access to conscious choice and reason, even during times of stress. This sense of control is invaluable as it helps us navigate the challenging emotions that often accompany having experienced trauma. However, it's essential to note that the window of tolerance is flexible and can change depending on our life experiences. Independent of how wide our window of tolerance is, we can actively work towards expanding it, empowering ourselves to handle more significant emotional challenges.
So just to give you an example of how important the concept of the window of tolerance is for healing. As a professional, I use Eye Movement, Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to support clients' integrated traumatic experiences. EMDR is a widely recognized method for phase 2 of trauma recovery. For EMDR to be effective, clients need to have the capacity to be within the window of tolerance while focusing on the emotional integration of past traumas. If we find ourselves in a state of hyper- or hypoarousal, healing these experiences becomes challenging, if not impossible. Therefore, it is important that we develop the ability to recognize our states and return to our window of tolerance before digging deeper into reprocessing past experiences.
Hyperarousal: Riding the wave of heightened activation
When we venture outside the upper boundary of our window of tolerance, we enter the realm of hyperarousal. This state is closely associated with the fight-or-flight response, characterized by heightened anxiety, flashbacks, anger, impulsivity, and self-injury or suicidality for some individuals. Our prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functioning, often becomes less effective or shuts down in hyperarousal, leading to a sense of being out of control.
It's crucial to remember that these behaviours are not conscious choices but automatic responses. Often, they serve as adaptive coping mechanisms stemming from past traumatic experiences. Instead of self-blame, we can see them as opportunities for growth and healing, acknowledging that they are rooted in unhealed wounds from our past. For example, experiences with self-injury under extreme stress are often correlated to past childhood trauma. Healing involves recognizing the state of our nervous system and developing healthy coping skills when our nervous system gets dysregulated.
Hypoarousal: Navigating void of low activation
Hypoarousal, on the other hand, occurs when we cross the lower boundary of our window of tolerance, triggering a shut-down response. This state is often linked to the freeze and fawn responses and manifests as depression, numbness, difficulty speaking, and emotional disconnection. It's a paralyzing experience that can leave us feeling ashamed and hopeless. We may also struggle with setting healthy boundaries if we are in hypoarousal.
Much like hyperarousal, hypoarousal is an automatic response of our nervous system in the face of perceived threats. These responses are the body's way of attempting to protect us, even though they can be distressing.
The natural response of our nervous system
Both hyperarousal and hypoarousal are natural responses of our nervous system when we encounter a threat. These responses can be crucial for our survival, like when we need to escape danger or endure a medical-induced coma. However, if our nervous system remains persistently overactive or underactive, it can lead to trauma symptoms. Individuals who have experienced trauma may find themselves frequently oscillating between these states when triggered by implicit or explicit memories.
Understanding our nervous system is key to breaking free from these cycles over time, but it's also essential to have tools and techniques to return to our window of tolerance. I will explain some strategies to navigate hypoarousal and hyperarousal in the next blog post.
The concept of the window of tolerance provides a foundation for recovery, enabling us to comprehend our emotional states and giving us the tools to return to and expand our window of tolerance. This self-awareness empowers us and enhances our understanding of the autonomic nervous system. For therapists and clients alike, introducing the concept early in the therapeutic journey can help assess where an individual is in their window of tolerance and develop strategies for returning to it.
The true impact of the window of tolerance lies in its practical application in our lives. It invites us to actively engage with self-awareness and significantly enhances our healing journey. By understanding and mastering our window of tolerance, we gain a greater sense of control over our emotions and ultimately navigate and regain control over trauma with resilience and empowerment.
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Bright Horizon Therapies is located on the traditional territories of the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Blackfoot Confederacy (comprising the Siksika, Piikani, and Kainai First Nations), the Tsuut’ina First Nation, and the Stoney Nakoda (including the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations). This land is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III. We acknowledge the traditional caregivers of the land and the importance of a commitment to continued decolonisation of our work.