Beyond Your 'Window of Tolerance'
The “window of tolerance,” a notion introduced by Daniel J. Siegel (a clinical professor of psychiatry defines the equilibrium our systems need in order to heal from trauma. When we have unhealed traumas, our systems may not be fully present. You might not fully know or feel that the danger has passed and can become fixed in states of hyper or hypo arousal and oscillate between the two.
If you are processing or healing from a history of trauma, disconnection is likely a familiar concept. You might be cognizant that it is a system of coping that, in times of distress, offers protection from the full realization of trauma and its associated emotions, sensations, images, thoughts, and patterns of thinking.
The lack of realization and integration of these components creates the symptoms that bring people to treatment and seek therapy. The larger or greater the extent and intensity of the traumas, the more complex the typical dissociation process and, of course, the treatment approach and plan.
Hypo- or hyper-arousal can result from the dissociation symptoms linked to the trauma, which may add to the experience (positive) or take away from the experience (negative). Positive dissociation symptoms may include intrusive images, feelings, sensations, and ideas. Negative dissociation symptoms may include amnesia, derealization, and depersonalization.
When we are stuck in these upper and lower zones of anxiety or depression, the full integration and healing of trauma cannot occur. But in the middle (the space of wellness), within the window of tolerance, healing and integration can happen.
The shift outside the window of tolerance into hypo or hyper-arousal is the dissociation process, and it may be subtle or extreme. In those moments we experience what is called the “quantum leap effect,” where aspects of our former self, still stuck in the original trauma, do not have access to what the present self knows. That keeps us trapped in reliving the trauma, even though a part of us—an inaccessible part, so long as we are dissociating—knows it is in the past.
ANCHORING YOURSELF IN THE PRESENT
After noticing a dissociation shift into hypo- or hyper-arousal, it may be helpful to use a skill that grounds you mindfully to the present. The anchor is not just about noticing you are “in the now.” It is important you notice and acknowledge the present is different from whatever you think you are stuck in. “I know I may be seeing things from a past perspective,” you might tell yourself, “but that old stuff can’t be happening because I am in this room now, and these are the ways it looks different.”
A more specific example might look like this: “The wall is white, there is door, and I am 22 years old. I can’t be in that past circumstance. I am in the same room as that is white with a door. It must be over, because I am in a different room and I am older. I wasn’t wearing these shoes. In fact, I couldn’t fit in these shoes if I was in that time.”
If you may be attempting to heal from trauma, think of this anchoring skill to get aspects of your former self more current and stay within your window of tolerance. To really take effect, it must be practiced over and over. But it is a vital coping tool for any trauma survivor, even prior to processing any traumatic material in therapy.