What is Trauma and the Window of Tolerance?
Updated: May 16
With the continued increase in awareness and the importance of mental health, the term “trauma” started settling in as a common vocabulary in people’s daily lives. Yet, what does it actually mean? To put it simply, trauma is the physical and emotional responses to an event or events that overwhelmed your innate ability to cope.
Trauma is also a very individualized experience; what is and isn’t traumatic is based on your perception of the event(s), not the event itself. For instance, two people could have been in a car accident, but while one might have felt okay after a few days, another might have started experiencing post-trauma symptoms. This does not mean that one is “stronger” than the other, rather, they simply have different nervous systems that react and adapt differently to events based on their physiology and history. In a different situation and context, the responses between them might be opposite. People are simply wired differently and uniquely, and it is not a fault or a shortcoming of yours if you have experienced trauma and struggle with the effects.
How does trauma show up?
When you think about the signs of trauma, perhaps some common depictions from the media come to mind - war veterans experiencing flashbacks during fireworks, or assault survivors looking scared and flinching away at a physical touch. While such experiences are definitely seen in real-life trauma survivors, just like how trauma is an individualized experience, symptoms and signs also differ from one person to another.
Here are some common responses to trauma:
Dissociation: You may feel detached from either yourself, your surroundings, or the present moment, and these things may feel unreal or dream-like. Other common terms include being “spaced-out”, “on auto-pilot”, or “zoned-out.”
Emotional numbness: You may experience feelings of emptiness inside or an inability to feel emotions; you may not respond to things that other people react to with sadness or anger
Intense emotions: Your emotions may feel too strong; something that would typically cause you to feel simply irritable might make you feel intensely angry and you may even have unintentional or uncontrollable outbursts of feelings.
Hypervigilance: You may feel always on edge, anxious, or anticipate that something bad will happen. You may startle easily at stimuli like loud noises or voices.
Impact on personal relationships: You may notice yourself withdrawing from your social relationships, pushing people away, or getting into conflicts. On the opposite end, you may find yourself excessively seeking and relying on others for support.
Risk-taking behaviors: You may find yourself engaging in high-risk behaviors, such as excessive substance use to avoid pain, dangerous activities such as reckless driving or unsafe sexual practices.
Physiological symptoms: You may experience physical symptoms such as racing heart, sweating, unexplained pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, and sleep difficulties (falling asleep, staying asleep, or excess sleep), among other symptoms.
Flashbacks and nightmares: You may experience vivid memories of the trauma or feel you are re-experiencing the trauma in the form of nightmares or intrusive thoughts, emotions, images, sounds, or other sensory experiences.
Trauma responses and the Window of Tolerance
There is a plethora of research on the science behind what causes such responses to trauma, and one way to answer this question is by using the concept of the “Window of Tolerance.” First coined by Dr. Dan Siegel, MD, the Window of Tolerance (WoT) posits that everyone has an optimal zone (a window) of arousal where they can function and process their experiences in a calm, cool, and collected manner.
When within the window, you feel focused, connected to the present moment, yourself, and others, and feel comfortable managing stress and difficulties. This does not mean you are never upset or stressed when in this zone, but rather, you can cope with such difficulties without becoming overwhelmed. Difficult or intense events, such as trauma, pushes you outside this window and into automatic survival states - hyperarousal or hypoarousal, and can change the size of your window.
What is hyperarousal?
Hyperarousal is a state of high nervous system activation - the commonly known fight/ flight/freeze response. In this state, you may feel fear, anxiety, anger, overwhelm, panic, or hypervigilance. You may notice physical signs such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, high muscle tension, or inability to move. You may unintentionally experience anger outbursts, become aggressive or short-tempered, wish to avoid and escape, or “fawn” and go along with what someone else wants out of fear and anxiety.
What is hypoarousal?
Hypoarousal is a state of low nervous system activation. It is also known as a collapse or shutdown response. Freezing can occur in this state as well. Here, you often feel numb, low-energy, dissociate (feeling detached from self/others/world; being “spaced-out”), and physically feel the inability to move your muscles or even to speak as if all strengths and tensions have disappeared. You may withdraw from people and the world around you.
What are automatic responses?
Hyperarousal and hypoarousal are not voluntary responses, and are not your fault. Rather, these are the results of the oldest part of your brain deciding that you are in grave danger and jumping in to keep you alive by choosing the most adaptive and safe way to react. In this situation, your new brain, or the thinking part of the brain, is offline. For instance, if a bear is about to attack you, thinking or planning what to do is not going to save you at the moment. Preparing to attack, flee, or stay still until the danger passes, is more likely to result in survival. Thus, these nervous system activations are extremely normal and natural reactions.
What is chronic arousal?
The problem occurs, however, when the perpetual state of hyper/hypoarousal continues even after the danger has passed. Even in the presence of no tangible danger, reminders or memories and feelings associated with the traumatic event (triggers), or feeling even slightly threatened can put you back into survival states, causing these reactions. Your body wants to protect you and make sure nothing bad will happen again. This is why you may jump and experience seemingly irrational anger when someone surprises you, why you cannot walk the crosswalk where the car crash has happened, or why you start to detach from the world when you see or hear something that consciously or subconsciously reminds you of your trauma.
When they become chronic, more stress hormones start to fill your body and start wearing you down physically and emotionally. In some cases, your window may actually shrink after an experience of trauma, making it so that what was easier to deal with in the past now feels overwhelming.
What maintains trauma responses?
To further complicate the matter, trauma memories are not stored the same way as other memories; they are more vivid and intrusive because they could not be integrated normally in your body and brain. It is common for trauma survivors to feel that they are still living in the moment of the incident and it can be very difficult to stay connected to the present moment.
In a sense, your body and mind are stuck in a perpetual state of survival and oriented toward detecting threats, leading to the maintenance and manifestation of trauma responses in your day-to-day life - to protect you.
How do I build and stay inside my window of tolerance?
Restoring your window of tolerance and getting back inside it whenever you are outside the window is important when healing from trauma, among other supports and strategies. Here are some ideas to help you regulate and grow your window :
1. Be aware of your different states: Being aware of and noticing when you are outside your WoT is an important step to help manage your difficulties, as it will make it easier to figure out what to do to self-soothe. If you notice yourself feeling more irritable or on edge than usual, or physical signs such as dry mouth or racing heart, it might be a sign you are going out of your window and into hyperarousal. On the other hand, if you notice yourself suddenly feeling very tired, difficult to focus, cold, or numb, that could be a sign you might be going into hypoarousal. Once you are aware of your signs, you can explore and practice strategies to help you get back in the window, including grounding exercises, deep breathing, physical activity, or any other forms of coping or self-care.
2. Find and create safety: Creating a sense of safety is extremely important in managing trauma symptoms, as most, if not all, reactions arise from the need for safety. Exploring what brings you a sense of safety - both internal and external - and implementing them in your life can be helpful. You might find a sense of safety through positive self-talk or calming exercises, wrapping yourself in a blanket, carrying a comforting object with you, seeking reassurance and support with people and places you trust, or by arranging your surroundings in a way that feels secure.
3. Establish predictability and routines: Establishing, or re-establishing routines and predictability in life can be helpful not only in building safety, but also in taking care of yourself - such as having a regular sleep schedule, meals, and meeting other basic needs.
4. Seek social support: Trauma often comes with a sense of guilt and shame, which makes it hard to talk about. Holding it all by yourself, however, can be extremely overwhelming and isolating. Although difficult, sharing your stories and feelings with trusted others and receiving support from them can help with the healing process. Of course, your story is your own and you deserve to keep the details to yourself; yet, you do not need details to seek support and share your struggles. Further, support does not have to mean just talking - it could be simply having another person’s presence with you, engaging in a fun activity together, or other ways to connect socially.
5. Treat yourself with patience and compassion: Feelings of guilt and shame are common among trauma survivors, and it can be easy to slip into the loop of self-criticism, blame, or frustration at yourself. Perhaps you may feel you “should’ve known better”, “it happened so long ago, I am weak for still struggling”, or other lines of difficult thoughts. Treating yourself with kindness and compassion through the process of healing is important, as it will help build an internal sense of safety, trust, and resilience. If this is hard, you might begin by seeing and treating yourself as you would your best friend who is going through the same difficulty. Healing from trauma is a long process; the road will be much easier with a supportive inner voice.
6. Seek professional support: Even with good social support and self-care, trauma seldom gets resolved quickly or easily. Further, there may be some parts of your story you wish to not share with even the closest people in your life, or want to understand more about. Finding the right therapist for you who can walk the healing journey with you can play an important role in helping you to understand, manage, and process trauma. For the best result, you may wish to search for ‘trauma therapists’ who are knowledgeable about the field of trauma and approaches to working with it, or those who work with your specific area of concern.
Trauma can seem big and overwhelming, and at times, everlasting. With the right support, you can manage and take your life back. The fact that something awful has happened cannot go away, and its memories may not completely disappear. But instead of it taking over your entire life, it can eventually become just one chapter in the story of your life you will continue to write.
Jiwon You is a psychologist specializing in working with adults in trauma therapy and self-esteem therapy. She is passionate about helping people heal from trauma and self-criticism so they can feel better and live more fulfilling lives. Jiwon provides affirming online therapy in Calgary and across Alberta for all folks 18+ and can provide services in Korean and English.