Do you ever feel shaky, hypervigilant, panicked? Do you shut down, go numb, feel empty?
If yes, your nervous system is hard at work protecting you!
One of the most important skills I teach clients in psychotherapy is to track their Window of Tolerance (see picture). This principle from Sensorimotor Psychotherapy refers to the level of activation we're experiencing in any given moment in our autonomic nervous systems.
Neuroception of safety or danger
Our nervous system, through a process called neuroception, instinctively evaluates whether or not we're safe. In response to neuroception, our autonomic arousal will fluctuate to a level that supports adaptive behavior. This happens without conscious awareness.
When our arousal level is inside our window of tolerance, we feel safe and function at our best. When we're safe, high arousal supports invigorating activities such as a heated conversation or exercise and low arousal supports quiet activities such as reading or listening to soft music.
When we feel threatened, our arousal may rise to hyperaroused levels to prepare us to fight, flee, or freeze in the face of danger. If these survival behaviors are unsuccessful, our arousal may drop to hypoaroused levels in which we shut down, collapse, and become immobile. We are outside our window of tolerance. These survival responses are activated in response to risk and danger.
In the face of trauma, we will become hyperaroused or hypoaroused. Along with trauma, these survival responses can be activated in response to inadequate nurturance and attunement from our early attachment figures.
As infants and children, we need to feel loved, accepted, and cared for by our caregivers in order to survive. We can feel frightened and scared when they criticize us, get angry with us, don’t pay attention to us, or otherwise physically and emotionally hurt us. In these instances we don’t feel safe. We may try to establish safety by running and hiding in our bedrooms (e.g., flee), getting angry and defending ourselves (e.g., fight), becoming very still and waiting until the criticism ends (e.g., freeze), or shutting down (e.g., collapse).
When our nervous systems can't reset after a traumatic event, or when we’ve grown up in an environment that provoked chronic levels of hyperarousal or hypoarousal, we lose the ability to neurocept safety and danger accurately. We become easily triggered by people, places, and situations that remind us of past trauma and attachment distress even when we're safe.
A chronic pattern of hyperarousal leaves us feeling anxious, irritable, angry, on guard, untrusting, self-destructive and impulsive. A chronic pattern of hypoarousal leaves us feeling numb, empty, depressed, shut down, and tired. As intolerable as these states may seem, your nervous system is helping you survive what's perceived to be a dangerous situation!
If you've judged yourself harshly for any of these behaviors, or been baffled at your inability to change, I hope you'll start to relieve yourself of this criticism. These responses are adaptive survival responses and reflect a nervous system that is biased to neurocept danger rather than safety. This is instinctive, automatic, and outside conscious awareness. Fortunately, you can learn to regulate your arousal and neurocept safety when you're actually safe.
In order to live from your most flexible, creative, spontaneous, thriving self you need to: 1) recognize when you're outside your window of tolerance, 2) learn which triggers — people, situations, experiences — you neurocept as dangerous even when they're not, 3) learn how to bring yourself back into your window of tolerance.
I'll cover the concept of nervous system regulation in future posts.
Action: Look at the list below and identify the signals you experience when you're hyperaroused, hypoaroused, and within your window of tolerance. This list is not exhaustive. Do you know what triggers you? What can you do to bring your arousal into a more comfortable zone?
Hyperarousal: Hypoarousal: Window of Tolerance:
urges to run or fight unable to move alert
verbally attacking others passive, apathetic composed
racing thoughts can't think clearly able to think clearly
hypervigiliant disconnected, spaced out centered
overwhelmed, panicked emotionally numb, empty curious and interested
sense of danger indifferent safe and secure
impulsive apathetic able to respond instead of react
shaky, tense or fidgety heavy, sluggish present
increased heart rate decreased heart rate
tension in your body increased sleep
This material comes from Ogden, P. & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor psychotherapy: Interventions for trauma and attachment. New York: W. W. Norton.