Trauma Demystified

Understanding the Window of Tolerance: Re-balancing a Dysregulated Nervous System

October 29, 2023 Natalie Jovanic Season 1 Episode 2
Trauma Demystified
Understanding the Window of Tolerance: Re-balancing a Dysregulated Nervous System
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Feeling disconnected, overwhelmed, or constantly on edge? Maybe you've been outside your "Window of Tolerance". 

Join Natalie Jovanic as they unravel the profound concept of the window of tolerance, a safe zone within which we can effectively manage our emotions. We'll take you on a fascinating exploration into the window of tolerance while providing insights into how trauma impacts our nervous system and how we can recognize and mitigate automatic responses.

Ever wondered why some situations leave you more rattled than others? And what do childhood experiences, trauma, and discrimination have to do with it? Tune in as we take a deep dive into the influences that can narrow our window of tolerance and push us into states of hyper- or hypo-arousal. Arm yourself with effective coping skills that can help you expand your window of tolerance or come back to it if you are in hypo= or hyperarousal.  It's time to navigate the often turbulent sea of emotions with more awareness and control, stepping into a journey of healing and growth.

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Trauma Demystified is not intended to be a replacement for professional guidance, support, medical treatment, or therapy. Please consult your physician or a mental health professional for any inquiries about mental health symptoms

Bright Horizon Therapies is located on the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Tsuut’ina First Nation, and the Stoney Nakoda. 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.

Natalie Jovanic (they/them):

Welcome to Trauma Demystified, a podcast by Bright Horizon Therapies. I'm Natalie Jovenage, my pronouns are they, them, and I am your host on this journey. In this episode, I'll be diving into the captivating world of emotions in our nervous system, drawing not only from my extensive experience as a trauma-informed counselor and coach, but also from my own healing journey from trauma. Get ready, because today's episode "Understanding the Window of Tolerance, rebalancing a dysregulated nervous system is going to give you new insights. We are going to explore the window of tolerance and uncover how trauma leaves its mark on our nervous system. But that's not all. I'll also equip you with some practical tools that will help you to widen your window of tolerance. I hope that these techniques will empower you to conquer the challenges of your emotional world like a true champion. Before I jump into the content, I want to give you some context on why I want to talk about it today. A dysregulated nervous system is one of the symptoms of trauma, and I've made it my mission to give my clients the wisdom of the window of tolerance at the beginning of our collaboration. Most of my clients find this knowledge helpful to understand the responsive better and regain control over the often upsetting symptoms of a dysregulated nervous system. Since I don't know you, and since this is a podcast, I want to make sure that you have some strategies to navigate emotions before moving forward with the podcast trauma-demystified. I hope that this episode helps you to not only comprehend your nervous system better, but also provides you with some strategies to navigate the stormy seas of your emotions. So let's embark on this journey of healing and empowerment. So what is this window of tolerance when it comes to our nervous systems? There are two different concepts that explain how it works. One is polyvagal theory, the other one is the window of tolerance. While they are similar, they have different flavors. I use the window of tolerance to help my clients understand and manage their emotional states, while polyvagal theory serves us to understand the broader functioning of our autonomic nervous system and its impact on social interactions and relationships. I find that both concepts can complement each other when it comes to the recovery from trauma. Personally, I had valuable insights from both of them. While we focus on this episode on the window of tolerance, I'll explain more about polyvagal theory in a later episode. So let's explore the window of tolerance. The concept of the window of tolerance has been introduced by Dan Siegel in 1999 and described three different states of arousal. It is usually depicted as a graphic where the area of the window of tolerance is in the middle, hyper arousal is below of it and hyper arousal is above the window of tolerance. In this concept, the window of tolerance describes a zone of optimal arousal. So what does optimal arousal mean? It means that when we are in our window of tolerance, we can effectively manage and cope with our emotions, even if they are intense, and this relates to positive or pleasant emotions and unpleasant emotions. So, whether it is happiness, or whether it's guilt or shame or anger, if we are in our window of tolerance, we can manage them and we can be with them. Additionally, we have access to conscious choice and reason if we are in our window of tolerance and therefore we have a sense of control, even if we feel stressed. Overall, if we are in the window of tolerance, we can effectively deal and cope with our emotions and with stress. It is important to understand that the window of tolerance is flexible and not written in stone. Depending on what happened to us or what is happening to us, the window of tolerance can change, and we can also choose to actively work towards expanding it. So now let's look at what happens if we are outside of our window of tolerance. As stated before, if we move outside of the window of tolerance, we are either in hyper or hypoavousal. I'll start with hyperavousal, which means we have moved outside of the upper boundary of our window of tolerance. Hyperavousal is related to the fight-and-flight response and it usually means that our nervous system is highly activated. So if we are in hyperavousal, we may experience heightened anxiety, we may have flashbacks, we may feel anger or rage or we feel very on edge, or we may have a higher impulsivity. Some people may have tendency to self-injury or suicidality. Some people may have really tight muscles. Some people may feel overwhelmed or they feel like they are being out of control. If we are in hyperavousal, our prefrontal cortex usually shuts down. This means our executive functioning isn't working as if we were in the window of tolerance. I have noticed that people sometimes blame themselves, because we may see behaviors in ourselves that we don't like. When we are in hyperavousal, for example, we may experience uncontrollable outburst of anger. Please note that these responses are automatic responses and not within our conscious choice. They are also often adaptive cocaine mechanisms to traumatic experiences of the past. While it is really uncomfortable if these behaviors show up, I often invite my clients to see them as an opportunity to grow and heal. They often show up because underneath of them are wounded parts of us that have not yet been healed. While we cannot control what happened to us, we are responsible for our own healing and we also are responsible to develop behaviors that are healthy as soon as we recognize elements that we don't like. Just to give you an example I used to injure myself when I was under extreme stress in a relationship, and I often felt ashamed of this behavior. The behavior was directly related to my childhood trauma. So while I wasn't responsible what had happened to me in my childhood, I still was responsible to learn healthier coping skills so that I wouldn't harm myself. So when I started my healing journey and I really learned new tools of coping, I learned to set healthy boundaries and I also Healed the wounds underneath of it. It really allowed me that this behavior didn't show up anymore. So overall, I would invite you to see it as a journey of growth and healing, even if you see things within yourself that you don't like. So now that we touched on hyper arousal, let's look at hypo arousal. So hypo arousal happens if we cross the lower boundary of the window of tolerance. Hypo arousal can also be seen as a shut-down response and it is usually connected with the freeze and fawn response. Symptoms of hypo arousals are that we feel depressed or we feel numb. We may be unable to speak or we may feel very low in thinking. We may not be able to connect with our emotions, we may feel dissociated or shut down, and we may also feel ashamed and hopeless. Sometimes we may lack the capacity of set a boundary or we may really experiences a paralysis. As with hyper arousal, it is an automatic response of our nervous system. So, overall, hypo and hyper arousal are natural response of our nervous system in the moment of a threat. In a way, it is a way how our nervous system wants to take care of us. We may go in hyper or hyper arousal due to various reasons. Many of them are necessary for our survival. Example of these are, for example, induced coma, or if you run very fast, or if you need to escape a real threat. In the moment, and ideally after these experiences, we are able to get back into our window of tolerance when the experience is over. However, if the nervous system remains persistently overactive or underactive, it can lead to the emergence of symptoms of trauma. If you have experienced trauma, we may also go into hypo and hyper arousal if we touch on implicit or explicit memories of trauma, which means that part of us get triggered and they may feel as if you are in danger right now. Or we may really be stuck in one of these different states. For example, in my 20s I was mostly stuck into hyper arousal because it was my coping mechanism as a child. In my own recovery, my counsellors never explained to me the window of tolerance Lesson gave me any tools to work with it. Looking back, I believe that it made my healing journey more complicated than necessary. Just to give you an example, as detailed in my memoir A Brave Two Story, I made the difficult decision to sever ties with my abusive father. Despite this, he persisted in stalking me. With assistance from the police, I managed a secure address to protect the place where I lived and after several moving around, I finally began to feel a sense of safety in my apartment. However, one night the doorbell rang and initially I assumed it was a mailman. So I allowed the visitor inside and suddenly a really deep intuition struck me. Somehow my father had found me and, in a panic, I swiftly closed the door and I cautiously peered to the spyhole, confirming my worst fears, as I saw him there, standing in front of my door. This encounter severely disregulated my nervous system, pushing me outside of my window of tolerance into a state of hyperarousal that lasted for more than a week. The therapist I was seeing at this time never acknowledged it or gave me any tools to work with it. Nowadays, I would utilize grounding techniques to cope with such situations, but back then I did not have the knowledge about these strategies. I first learned about the window of tolerance and my training to become a counselor. So, overall, my own experience taught me how important it is that we understand our autonomic nervous system and also that we have tools and techniques to go back into our window of tolerance. So what's the takeaway from this section? The concept of the window of tolerance serves us as a valuable foundation in guiding the recovery process. It helps us with comprehending our emotional states. This self-awareness allows us to find strategies to both return to and expand our window of tolerance. Notably, I've observed that it gives my clients a sense of control, as it enhances their understanding of how their autonomic nervous system works. I make it a point to introduce the concept early in the therapeutic journey and consistently check in with my clients during our sessions to assess where they are at in the window of tolerance. When clients find themselves in a state of hypo or hyperarousal, we work with strategies to guide them back into the window of tolerance. While it is beneficial to understand the concept of the window of tolerance, the true impact lies in its practical application in your life. Therefore, I invite you to cultivate a genuine interest in understanding the current state of your nervous system. So I suggest that you start inquiring within yourself what states of your nervous system you recognize. This is an active engagement with self-awareness and it can significantly enhance your healing journey. So now let's look at what influences our window of tolerance. First of all, the development of our window of tolerance is influenced by our childhood experiences. When we are born, we have a very tiny window of tolerance and we need the support from adults to manage our emotions. Under ideal circumstances, our window of tolerance expands when we grow up so that we can tolerate intense emotions like depression, anxiety or stress. This means we can manage either very low activation or very high activation. However, this requires an environment that nurtures the expansion of our window of tolerance. First of all, we need to have good attachments to our caregivers. As a child, this means that there is an adult who is there for us, who hugs us, who reassures us if we feel upset or lonely or depressed. They validate our experiences and maybe they make us laugh when it's really difficult. Overall, the caregiver supports us to go back into the window of tolerance. As a summary, we learn the capacity to soothe ourselves and regulate our nervous system from our caregivers and over time, our nervous system learns that it can be in high or low arousal and get back to the window of tolerance just like a muscle. While some people may have been lucky enough to experience this in their childhood, many of us have grown up in this ideal world. Therefore, it's also useful to look at experiences that may not allow us to widen our window of tolerance as children. So what are these experiences? First of all, one of them is if you lack the secure attachment with a caregiver. Another one is if you experience childhood trauma over exposed to adverse childhood experience. This is so-called ACEs. This includes experiences like physical, mental, emotional or sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect or household dysfunction. Household dysfunction can have different areas, like mental illness, death, divorce, addiction, if a parent is in prison or if one parent is physically abusing the other one. So, just if I look at my own life, abuse was present and also my mother had a chronic illness, my parents went through a divorce and there was a lot of fighting after the divorce. So I had many of these so-called ACEs that influenced my childhood experiences and that also led to a fact that I was in hyperarousal when I was an adult. As I said before, children shouldn't have to go through these experiences, but we also need to be realistic that they are coming into today's society and, while we cannot control what happened to us in our childhood, we can make the choice to learn these skills as adults to improve our own well-being. Apart from our childhood, we can also have experiences that may narrow our window of tolerance as adults. So one of them is if you are exposed to chronic stress, and this can exclude financial stress or dysfunctional adult relationships or high stress workplace. So there are various factors that may lead to chronic stress. Another area that can narrow our window of tolerance is if you are exposed to experiences of racism, discrimination and marginalization. Additionally, our window of tolerance can decrease if you are in an environment where our emotions are dismissed. So these are all factors that influence our nervous system over time. On a little bit different note, there are also temporary factors like sleep deprivation, exhaustion, hunger or a work deadline that can narrow our window of tolerance. Briefly, like for me, I know when I'm hungry I'm outside of my window of tolerance and I need to be really mindful that I take care of myself so that I don't put my anger onto other people or that I don't get angry with other people. I also notice that my stress level is really high if I notice that I snap from my cat, who is very demanding, but usually if I'm in my window of tolerance, it doesn't affect me. So we all respond uniquely and the impact of a narrowed window of tolerance can be different from person to person and we may also experience it very differently. So I would really invite you to be curious about your own experience, because nobody can tell you what happens inside of you. So some people may frequently be in hyperarousal, others may go into hypoarousal and some people may switch between chronic hypo and hyperarousal, and sometimes I can really feel as if you are stuck in one of these states. Please note that these are adaptive responses to painful experiences and it doesn't mean that there is something wrong with you. It just means that it's something we need to take care of and we need to work on expanding. As a conclusion, the development of the window of tolerance, which refers to our ability to manage intense emotions, is heavily influenced by our childhood experiences. Our capacity to self-thuse and regulate our nervous system is learned through these early caregiving experiences, similar to how a muscle strengthened with use. Unfortunately, not everyone experiences these ideal upbringing and we may have a narrow window of tolerance. Although we cannot change our past, we can learn these skills as adults. Furthermore, adult life experiences can narrow our window of tolerance, particularly chronic stress, experiences of racism and discriminations and environments that dismiss our emotions. We all respond individually different to these difficult experiences. Some people may frequently experience this hyperarousal, while others fall into hypoarousals, and some people may switch between chronic hypo and hyperarousal. So now, what do we do with all of this knowledge? So now let's explore the power of the window of tolerance in the recovery from trauma. First of all, I think it's important to know if you recover from trauma, it doesn't mean that you need to immediately plunge into revisiting traumatic experiences. One of the initial steps involves widening our window of tolerance and acquiring the tools to return to it when needed. It's crucial to develop this capacity to identify the state of our nervous system and process strategies to return to it. Therefore, self-assessment is the first step in understanding our own window of tolerance, and this is really a journey of self-discovery. So just to give you an example on how the window of tolerance impacts recovery and how it can be used, for example, as a professional, I use eye movement, desensitization and reprocessing EMDR to support clients' integrated traumatic experiences. Emdr is a widely recognized method for trauma recovery. However, emdr necessitates that clients remain within the window of tolerance while addressing past traumas. If we find ourselves in a state of hyper or hypoarousal, healing these experiences becomes challenging. Hence, it is imperative to develop the ability to recognize our emotional states and return to our window of tolerance before digging deeper into working with our trauma. While we may not have direct control over the width of our window of tolerance, since this is influenced by our past experiences and other factors, we can work towards expanding it. In general, the broader our window of tolerance is, the more resilient we become. Overall, working towards expanding our window of tolerance supports us in being equipped to better navigate life's challenges and improve our well-being. Personally, I really like a quote from Babette Rothschild that says the first goal of trauma recovery should and must be to improve your quality of life on a daily basis. I see working with the window of tolerance as an important step for this goal. So now let's see what are the strategies that we can use to widen our window of tolerance. And just before I jump into the strategies, please know that you can ask me for a sheet with these exercises, and if you're interested in receiving them, please don't hesitate to reach out to me by sending a nat@ brighthorizontherapies. com. So the initial step in broadening our window of tolerance is cultivating self-awareness to discern whether we are operating within its boundaries or experiencing hypo or hyper arousal. I encourage you to really nurture a sense of curiosity about your emotional state. Simply check in with yourself without judgment. I like to ask myself a question like I wonder what state I'm in right now and then just notice what's there. Based on what state you're in, you can experiment with different strategies. Some strategies work better for hyporousals. Others may work better for hyporousals and may also be individually different. So let's start with strategies for hyperarousal. So if you aren't hyperarousal, you're likely to notice agitation, acceleration or anxiety, and so the goal for this state is really to find strategies that soothe and calm your nervous system, and the simplest method to return to your window of tolerance is to focus on your breathing and just paying attention to your breath. So when you notice that you're in hyperarousal, what you can do is just bring awareness to your breath and really observe how it enters and exits your body. If you want to, you may just put your hand on your body or on your belly and just notice your hand there and then just focus on your breath. So initially, just be mindful of your breath, without attempting to modify it. Really notice it as it is, notice how it enters your nose and how it exits your nose. So typically, during hyperarousal, the breath tends to be more shallow or more rapid, and after a few breaths, you can experiment with directing your breath more towards your belly and observe the effect it has on you, and then just play around with your breath until you notice that your state of hyperarousal has reduced. My breathing is very effective. It may take some practice if you are at a really high level of activation. So what can you do if you're at a high level of activation? So one of the grounding tools I like to use is a so-called 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 grounding, and here's a way how you can practice it. So before you start with the grounding, just check in with yourself how intense your emotion is, on a scale from 0 to 10. For example, I made this ask myself so what is my emotional intensity? And then maybe right now it's a 4. And then you start with the questions what are five things you can see? And then you just label what you see. So, for example, I see a plant, I see a shelf, I see my computer, I see my microphone and I see my mouse. The next question is what are four things you can hear? And then just tell all the things that you can hear. The next question is what are three things you can feel? And then just notice what are the things that you can feel. For example, right now I can feel my sweater on my skin, I can feel the surface I'm sitting on, I can feel how my feet touch the ground. The next question is what are two things you can smell and then just notice what you can smell? And the last question is what is one thing you can taste and then just say out loud the one thing you can taste and after you went through that, just check in with yourself again and ask yourself how intense is the emotion now? So usually you may notice a little bit of a shift and the number is going down a bit. And one thing I want to say if you say the things out loud, just say what you notice, but don't put any type of emotion around it. So I see a plant versus I see a plant I love very much. So for this grounding exercise you just say I see a plant. So in general, most of my clients find this grounding exercise quite effective. The downside is that it requires that you are present in your body and this can be triggering for some people. So how I use it in the context sometimes is that I ask first what are five things you can see. Then I ask what are four things you can see that are blue, what are three things that you can see that are round, and so that I play a bit around with that, so that people don't need to go that much into their body. If this tool doesn't work for you, please note that it doesn't mean that there's something wrong with you. It just means that it's not the right tool at the time. Another practice to navigate hyperarousal is to go outside for a walk and just notice the environment, like notice what you see, notice the sky, notice the smell of the air, notice how the wind feels on your face or anything else you can perceive in your environment. Going outside can be useful for you if being outside doesn't increase your level of anxiety. For some people, they have a higher level of anxiety if they are outside than if they are inside, and then it's not a useful method for grounding. So now that we've touched on the three tools of hyperarousal, which means breathing, the five, four, three, two, one, grounding and going outside, let's look at tools for hyperarousal. So hyperarousal often manifests with symptoms such as numbness, dissociations, fogginess and a sense of disconnection, and so when we are faced with hyperarousal, the objective is to energize our nervous system and establish a sense of connection. So here are several strategies on how you can achieve this. So the first one is to engage in a physical activity, and this can mean doing jumping jacks. It can be push-ups or planks. I really like doing jumping jacks because it's working very good for me to revitalize my nervous system and also promotes a sense of connection with my body. So the technique depends a little bit on what you feel comfortable with, but really play around with it and find a physical activity that works for you. Another strategy that is useful is to start dancing to upbeat music, because the music and the rhythm really helps to stimulate our nervous system. Alternatively, if you don't like dancing, you can just listen to upbeat music. So sometimes, if you are in a hyperavousal, we feel so down as if you can't move. So then the question really is what is the smallest level of energizing your nervous system that you can do? So sometimes it can just be merely getting up and moving around a little bit and not do jumping jacks or not do dancing. It may also just involve a short walk or just do some stretching, like. For me, what really works well in hyperavousal is if I go for a walk, especially because this gives me a sense of connection with nature. So now that we touched on the strategies, the next question is how do we apply them? The first and foremost, it's essential to acknowledge that we are all unique and what works for one person may not work for another, so sometimes these practices require adjustments to fit to your specific contact. So please be patient with yourself and also be prepared to repeat these exercises, and also be aware that I just gave you a couple of tools that are out there. There's a wide variety of different strategies out there. The second thing which is important is that you have patience with yourself and that you repeat the practice. Sometimes tools really work quickly and sometimes you will hardly notice a difference in the beginning. Just to give you a personal example, I once encountered trauma due to systemic violence and I stayed in hyperavousal for several months and there was no movement in my nervous system, and in the beginning I felt as if nothing worked because the change was so minimal. However, over time, I just continued the practice and I continued the practice and I reassessed after six months and after a year, and I noticed over this period a really profound improvement in my well-being, and so this experience really taught me the lesson to not give up. So therefore, I would invite you experiment with them, and sometimes just it takes time until they really start working, depending on the level of activation we are going through. The other thing, what you can keep in mind, is that you start these techniques during moments of low activation of your nervous system, which means you're only subtly out of your window of tolerance. And maybe you're still in your window of tolerance Because, similar to building a muscle, we need to start with a lower intensity first before we can really practice these tools if you have really high levels of activation. So in this, it's really like mastery comes with practice and we start where it is easy. If you find that a particular practice doesn't have the desired effect or even makes you feel worse, please understand that it doesn't imply there's something wrong with you. It might simply be that this specific practice is not the right fit for you. Unique healing journey, experimenting and customizing are key to discovering what works best for you. So I really would invite you play with them and also play with different situations and just notice what is the difference for you over time. So yeah, for these strategies, I'm now really curious which one of those that I discussed are you interested in trying out? As a summary, we delved into the concept of the window of tolerance and influences on our window of tolerance. In this episode, additionally, I provided you with practical strategies to effectively navigate hypo and hyperarousal. I hope that you find this episode valuable. If you're interested in receiving a sheet of grounding exercises, please don't hesitate to reach out to me by sending a message to nat@brighthorizontherapies. com. If you enjoyed this content and believe it could benefit others, I encourage you to share it with a friend or anyone you think may find it useful. Your support helps us reach a broader audience. Stay tuned for our next episode, where we will explore the various status of recovery from trauma, offering insights and guidance for your journey. Thank you for being a part of our trauma-demystified community and I hope you have a beautiful time. See you soon.

Context of the Window of Tolerance
The Concept of the Window Of Tolerance
Experiences that affect the Window of Tolerance
Power of Window of Tolerance in Trauma Recovery
Strategies to Widen the Window of Tolerance