By Cheryl Schenck, LPC CSAT
If you have experienced betrayal trauma, childhood trauma, or high levels of stress, there’s a good chance you know what it feels like to have difficulty with keeping track of your thoughts, concentrating, episodes where your heart is racing, or even panic attacks. The smallest thing occurs, or someone says the wrong thing, and you’ve exploded way beyond what is really happening in the moment. You have gone outside of a zone of feeling in control, calm, and able to function well. You are experiencing more than what you can tolerate. It seems it doesn’t make sense, that it came out of nowhere.
Sometimes, it can be the opposite. When it feels like it’s too much, you shut down, want to go to sleep, feel lethargic and unable to engage in your daily routine. It might feel like a 100-ton weight is dragging you down. Participating in conversation, taking care of your kids, or getting that task done feels way too difficult. You’ve dropped out of that zone where you feel capable, have enough energy for the day, and are ready to engage.
The ability to carry out life activities and socially engage requires that our system operate at a level of arousal that allows the brain and nervous system to take in sensory information, process it, and respond in order to function efficiently. The level of operating that is optimum for functioning well is called the “window of tolerance,” a term coined by Dan Siegel, a pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, and renowned author of multiple articles and books. When we are in this window of tolerance, we are operating in a zone where we can appropriately attend, focus, and interact with others. It is necessary for the nervous system and emotions to be in the optimum range of functioning to carry out self-care, perform our jobs, and relate to partners, friends, and coworkers.
When someone experiences trauma, there is too much stimuli to take in or process, and a person’s system can be pushed into hyper-arousal where they may have high anxiety, panic, become agitated, or need to stay in motion. This state is often experienced with hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, or nightmares. At other times an individual may experience shut down or be emotionally numb. The person is in a state of hypo-arousal and may experience depression, excessive sleep, a feeling of emptiness, and even paralysis can occur.
Sometimes, someone is initially in a state of hyper-arousal with all its attendant symptoms of a racing heart rate, shallow breathing, or panic reactions. But if it persists, and the individual is unable to self-regulate and bring him or herself back down into the window of tolerance, they may then go into shut-down, numbing, and paralysis or hypo-arousal. Even if the trauma is not occurring in the moment, it can have happened years ago, a person can be knocked out of their window of tolerance. Something in the environment – a look, a smell, a tone of voice, an image – that occurs in the present can intersect with the previous traumatic experience and the nervous system responds with either high or low levels of arousal.
If you understand what it feels like to be in your window of tolerance, and conversely, when you are outside of it, you can begin to help yourself use strategies to self-regulate. Learning mindfulness techniques, or using breathing strategies are ways to get back into the zone – get back into the window of tolerance. Working with a trauma informed therapist can be essential to the process of being able to operate in your optimum level of arousal.
If you travel life trying to self-protect and stay safe, it is common to avoid situations and people that might trigger you out of your comfort zone. The window of tolerance is narrow, and it doesn’t take much to push you out of that optimum place of functioning. As you work with your therapist, and employ new strategies, you will be able to expand your window and find more opportunities to feel you are in the zone – in the place of feeling safe, productive, and able to be with others.
If you want to know more about this the following references and articles will get you started.
“I dont know what came over me”. (2017, December 28). Retrieved February 26, 2018, from http://www.debbieaugenthaler.com/window-of-tolerance/
Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: a sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: W.W. Norton.
Siegel, D. J. (2012). Mindsight: change your brain and your life. Brunswick, Vic.: Scribe Publications.
Siegel, D. J. (2012). The developing mind: toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. New York: Guilford Press.
Cheryl Schenck, LPC, CSAT – Cheryl works with clients struggling with trauma, sex addiction, their partners, and couples. She is trained in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and Emotionally Focused Therapy. She loves spending time with her family, swimming and hopes someday to get back to her love of playing piano and guitar.