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How Trauma Can Affect Your Window of Tolerance

Trauma is complex. And often, it’s an experience that can profoundly change our lives. The impact of trauma also usually extends far beyond the initial event.


Trauma can affect what is called our Window of Tolerance, making everyday situations feel overwhelming and limits our ability to cope with stress, ultimately changing how we interact with the world around us.

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What is the Window of Tolerance?


Have you ever had an experience where your reaction surprised you? Where the intensity of the feelings did not match the present situation? We refer to this as an experience of being outside of our window of tolerance. The Window of Tolerance helps to explain why we can each react so differently to similar events. Acute, and chronic, stressors both impact our tolerance levels, including other factors that may make us more vulnerable i.e: sleep, hunger, health concerns, etc. Dr. Dan Siegel, MD is credited with creating the Window of Tolerance, which describes our optimal "zone of arousal".  This is where we can feel as though we can regulate our emotions and daily experiences. When within this window, or zone of arousal, we can well regulate ebbs and flows in emotions and well handle stressors that come their way. Very simply put, life throws curveballs, and our Window of Tolerance is part of what determines how well we catch them. However, when chronic stressors begin to build, this limits our window and ability to regulate and handle daily life stressors.


For those who have gone through trauma this window can become much narrower. Trauma can affect a person's capacity for emotion regulation, which can make it more difficult for them to keep their arousal levels within the proper range. Those who have experienced trauma often operate in a state of hypervigilance, which decreases their Window of Tolerance as it taxes their system. Because of this, even minor stressors could impact them, pushing them out of their Window of Tolerance and into states of hyperarousal, causing what might be seen as an ‘overreaction’.  


What is Hyper and Hypo arousal?


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Being in a state of increased nervous system sensitivity and alertness is known as hyperarousal. This is often associated with conditions like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but shows up in other instances as well. You may have heard of the "fight, flight, or freeze response" - that’s what that is! It occurs when your body suddenly becomes very alert, but in those who have experienced trauma, often does not ‘turn off’ thereby becoming in a chronic state of stress.. 


Imagine your body is like a car revving its engine super high, even when it's not in a race. This happens when you might not be in actual danger, but your body thinks you are and gets ready to deal with it by fighting, running away, or freezing on the spot. Even if there's no immediate danger, your body can feel ready to react. It goes into overdrive. 


People in hyper-arousal might feel scared or panicky. They might always be on edge or jumpy. Their muscles might feel tight, and they might freeze up like a deer caught in headlights. Living in this state can make it tough to sleep well, control emotions, or focus. It's like always having your foot on the gas pedal. And sometimes, it can lead to anger or hostility.


On the flip side, we have hypoarousal. When this occurs, in the face of real or perceived danger, people feel the opposite of hypo-aroused - they’ll become lethargic, disconnected, or numb.


How The Window of Tolerance Impacts Your Nervous System


Our nervous system regulates our physiological responses to stress and maintains a sense of equilibrium. Think of your nervous system as the manager of your body's responses to stress and relaxation. The Window of Tolerance is the comfort zone where this manager works best, keeping everything running smoothly without getting too stressed or uncomfortable. 


When you're within this window, your nervous system helps you deal with life's ups and downs in a balanced way. You can think clearly, make decisions, and stay connected to others. Your body feels alert but not on edge, relaxed but not sluggish.


If something pushes you outside this window into hyperarousal, your nervous system hits the gas pedal too hard. This is when you might feel anxious, jittery, or angry—like you're ready to fight or flee. This is your body's way of saying, "Danger! Get ready to act!"


Nervous System & Deactivation


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In this context, deactivation describes returning to a balanced state following a stressful or hyperarousal event. It's similar to turning your body's alarm system "off" when the situation has passed so you can relax and get back to a calmer state. This process is automatic in a healthy nervous system. However, this "off" button, or the capacity to deactivate, can be compromised for people who have suffered trauma. This can leave people stuck feeling on edge (hyperarousal) or unusually disconnected (hypoarousal) for extended periods. 



Deactivation can be difficult for people whose Window of Tolerance has been affected by trauma. Their inability to bring their neurological system back to normal could result in persistently high arousal levels or emotional detachment. This may make it more difficult for them to go about their everyday lives, maintain relationships, and experience a sense of well-being.


Understanding the Window of Tolerance is super important here, especially for therapists working with trauma survivors. It's about understanding and expanding the range in which someone can handle stress without tipping into those extreme states of hyperarousal or hypoarousal. Helping clients widen their Window of Tolerance can give them back some control over their reactions and improve their resilience.


Our team has many strategies for expanding the Window of Tolerance and promoting nervous system regulation. These include mindfulness practices, which help people to stay present and grounded; grounding techniques, which help reconnect with the here and now; and somatic experiencing, which focuses on the body and nervous system to process trauma. By incorporating these approaches into therapy sessions, therapists can help clients build resilience and increase their capacity to tolerate distress, thereby widening their window of tolerance.


The journey to heal from trauma and to expand the Window of Tolerance is gradual and often non-linear. It requires patience, self-compassion, the willingness to face challenging emotions and past events while simultaneously learning to tolerate discomfort in the body. However, with appropriate support and tools, regaining a sense of security, stability, and resilience is well within reach.


Every journey through healing is unique, just like you! If you're ready to explore your Window of Tolerance and find your path to resilience, let's talk.



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