When we move through life we are often moving within or outside of our window of tolerance. As seen in the image, our window of tolerance allows us to manage and cope throughout our day. We can feel stressed or upset within our window of tolerance without going outside into our survival responses.
When we experience trauma (big T or little t) our perception of our world shifts. When we experience trauma, our window gets smaller making it harder to move through our day without jumping into either hyperarousal or hypoarousal.
Hyperarousal: Our fight/flight response, which can include feelings of anxiety, panic, anger or hypervigilance.
Hypoarousal: Our freeze response which can include feelings of depression, numbness, disassociation.
Often times individuals with trauma may experience a lot of fatigue at the end of the day because they were jumping in and out of their survival responses. When we are unable to regulate and remain within our window of tolerance our body releases adrenaline and cortisol, keeping us on high alert. When we return back into our window of tolerance the body can feel exhausted from protecting itself (or feeling like it has to).
What triggers us to move outside of our window of tolerance is dependent, it could be a visual memory, a sound, a smell, a taste, or even a location. If we are consistently exposed to the trigger or unable to regulate our emotions or use strategies to calm the body, we will remain outside of our window of tolerance which often can develop into clinical anxiety or depression.
So, how do we stay within our window of tolerance?
We can practice staying within our window by building awareness and noticing what triggers us to move outside our window, different body sensations that occur, thoughts and emotions, so we are in a better position to respond to situations instead of react.
Breathing work, while I can empathize with some people feeling like breathing doesn't work or feels pointless; it is important in calming our body and emotions when in a heightened state. Breathing also helps with bringing us back into the present moment and away from our "what if" thoughts.
Check our thoughts and if needed, challenge them. Sometimes it can be helpful to talk out loud to yourself. "I'm having the thought or the feeling I am in danger, but I know I am in the bread isle and not in danger" or "I'm acknowledging my body is trying to protect me in this moment, I will practice some deep breathing to calm my body down."
Connect with your senses. Often times, when we are going into survival our minds are focused on survival or stuck in the past/worried about the future. To help bring ourselves back down from survival or to remain in the present moment, we want to connect with our 5+1 senses. The +1 sense is movement, we can move our bodies to help ground us in the present.
How do we increase our window of tolerance?
Therapy! I know I'm biased, but when we engage in therapy and working through our trauma we provide ourselves a safe space to talk about the big feelings or experiences (which may send us outside of our window of tolerance) but with a professional who is able to co-regulate with us in the moment and teach ourselves and our body we can experience big thoughts and emotions and be okay.
Self-care! The best care is self-care! When we are actively taking time for ourself and to engage in activities that allow us to calm our bodies, feel joy, or connect with ones we love. Self-care doesn't have to be lavish vacations or spa days, it can be saying no to going out because you know staying home for a night will be helpful, it can also be going to therapy, journalling, etc. This is a good time to engage in self-soothing activities.
Practice, practice, practice. Begin practicing grounding strategies, implementing self-care, work on breathing strategies or engaging in your 5+1 senses, going to therapy, etc. When we are actively engaged and mindful of our well-being we are able to respond more effectively.